John McLellan: Long haul for housing

Nigel Bagshaw at Inverleith Park. Pic: Jane Barlow
Nigel Bagshaw at Inverleith Park. Pic: Jane Barlow
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It hasn’t taken long to expose the problems faced by Edinburgh as it struggles to meet the housing demands handed down by the Scottish Government.

While the specific numbers might be open to challenge, no-one with any sense questions the need for more homes in the capital but the argument is what type and where.

Last week, Green activists were very quick to tweet a line from my ­feature in which I pointed out that their Councillor Nigel Bagshaw was the only member of the planning ­committee to oppose any building on the green belt.

I don’t agree with Cllr Bagshaw, but his basic view that there should be enough space to meet our needs from brownfield sites is perfectly arguable. Go on, tweet that if you want.

But after less than a week, Cllr Bagshaw himself exposed just how far from straightforward that position turns out to be.

Two seemingly unrelated applications came before the development management sub-committee on which he sits, one for a new block of flats near the Craigleith Retail Park and another much more substantial plan for the old Fruitmarket site in Chesser. He opposed them both.

The first was to build nine flats and a single house on a site on Groathill Road South with existing permission for a bigger development which the applicant has now scaled down, I suspect because the levy for development along the abandoned Granton Spur tram line has been scrapped.

Cllr Bagshaw was perfectly within his rights to inquire about drainage, safety for pedestrians and traffic impact.

Fellow councillors agreed some questions still need to be answered and as a result, a decision has been deferred for a site visit. The irony is that the developer already has permission for the bigger, more impactful scheme and could start building tomorrow if he wanted.

A similar situation exists at the extensive Chesser site, the old home of Asda before it moved across the road and for which permission exists for housing and a supermarket.

That scheme hasn’t gone ahead because Morrison’s pulled out.

The new plan includes four smaller shops instead of one big one and four kiosks in what forms a mini retail park. There are plans for 114 homes, 80 of which will be affordable.

The developer estimates there will be demand for around 280 parking spaces and proposes 270.

Locals are happy with the plans. Cllr Bagshaw is not.

His view is that there is no need for the retail element and the whole site should be given over to houses.

He believes the shops are red ­herrings, as opposed to a means for the developer to make a reasonable profit while delivering a high proportion of affordable homes.

The council’s rules are that any new scheme must be 25 per cent affordable, so at 28 that’s 62 more than they need to deliver.

As for the shops, Cllr Eric Milligan, who knows a thing or two about Gorgie, explained that the success of the Aldi store down the road was such that it can no longer cope and wants to shift the excess demand to a second store here.

This sounds like proper price ­competition for Asda and great news for Chesser folk, whose tidy neighbourhood is blighted by this waste ground. And with reasonable parking provision, the existing residents in the Hutchison’s area don’t have to worry about parking displacement on their narrow streets.

What we have here is a good scheme, using brownfield land which meets a demand for affordable ­housing, affordable shopping and which minimises parking impact on locals.

Yes, there will be more traffic on the roads, but that was going to happen with any housing development, even if a no car rule was imposed.

Yet objections are thrown up by the people keenest to see brownfield site exploited first.

Cllr Bagshaw’s words were “There is so much wrong with this I don’t know where to start.”

And he was not alone, also in ­opposition were local councillor Denis Dixon of the SNP and the Conservatives’ Joanna Mowat who from what I’ve seen doesn’t seem to be in favour of very much at all.

And to think the Tories used to be known as the Progressives.

Thankfully those were the only objectors and the plan went through.

So we have two schemes, both with existing permission, both using the right kind of land, both meeting ­housing needs but both potentially hitting buffers.

Nothing should go through on the nod and it is the council’s job to scrutinise and the councillors’ role to ensure the scrutiny is fair and ­decisions sensible.

But if this is the kind of situation we get into with relatively 
straightforward decisions, there is going to be a very difficult road ahead indeed.

AL FRESCO GEORGE STREET

It might not quite be Barcelona’s Las Ramblas, certainly not when Edinburgh is experiencing its usual weather, but the plans for George Street for the next 12 months are the closest thing we’ll have.

The plan to make the street one way for a year has already been approved, but now comes the bit which it is hoped will persuade people the inevitable traffic hassle is worth it.

Raised decking and summer houses have been approved on the closed sections of road between Charlotte and St Andrew Squares so the bars and restaurants along the way can extend their operations into the street in the same way as already happens in the Grassmarket.

The Festival time street attractions, especially the Spiegeltent, have proved very popular and when the weather is good I have no doubt the gazebos will too, unless you are Councillor Joanna Mowat who has a thing about gazebos in general for some reason. Maybe a bit too arriviste?

Over the past fortnight sitting areas outside every café and bar across town have been packed and it’s strange to remember that not so long ago they were banned by the city licensing authorities who feared rowdiness. Aye, those ladies lunching at Centotre can be a handful if the gym’s been busy and there is nowhere to park the Range Rover.

But this is a year-long experiment and it’ll stay this way until September 2015 when a decision will be taken on whether it should become permanent or not. My hunch is the outside tables will be popular in summer but in winter there won’t be much demand for al fresco dining.

The restaurants won’t want the cost and inconvenience of staffing and maintaining cold and windy tables at which no-one is sitting, so the gazebos might have to come down.

But the traffic will still be diverted and as constantly changing the city-centre road lay-out is a non-starter, who’d bet against the road changes becoming permanent?

What will not be good for George Street throughout November is to look like the Blackpool Pleasure Beach on a wet bank holiday, and rightly city planning convener Ian Perry recognises the decking and gazebos are only temporary measures for a time-limited experiment and lasting solutions will be needed if the new approach is to remain.

The ultimate decision is not going to be easy, so here is an optimistic prediction: the gazebos come down next September as planned but the road changes stay. The council runs a consultation and then decides to make it permanent but invites ideas for how to do it in a way that keeps the street smart all year round. While this is being worked out, the gazebos go up again at Easter 2016 and down again in September.

Despite protests from traders, work on an agreed permanent scheme starts in March 2017, but it is phased over 18 months so the street is not completely out of action during the 2017 Festival. A late push means the new George Street is completed in time for the 2018 Festival.

I hope those gazebos are durable.