John McLellan: Loosened greenbelt rules inevitable

Campaigners protest at plans to encroach on the green belt. Picture: TSPL
Campaigners protest at plans to encroach on the green belt. Picture: TSPL
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‘Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” is the full quote from the 19th-century United States, encouraging Americans to seek their fortune towards the Pacific.

Appropriately, it was made famous in not one but two newspaper editorials, firstly in an Indiana paper in the 1850s, but then repeated in the New York Tribune in 1865 and has been attributed ever since to its founder and editor Horace Greeley. (One for trivia fans – Greeley employed one Karl Marx as his European correspondent).

Greeley was writing in the wake of the American Civil War and while disagreements have not got that extreme in Edinburgh, a war of words will continue to rage about Edinburgh’s westward expansion following yesterday’s almost literally groundbreaking planning committee meeting.

It is groundbreaking because the principle of never building on the green belt has now effectively gone. Key sites in both the west and south-east of the city, previously off-limits, are now in play as the city moves towards adopting a new local development plan.

You wouldn’t have thought it was such a momentous day, judging by the low-key gathering which was brightened only by Conservative leader Cameron Rose’s sharp nudge to remind Councillor Dominic Heslop to vote for his own party’s amendment.

It was also marked by the pointless harrumph of deputy convener Sandy Howat who, having sat silent throughout the meeting with a face like a slapped backside, walked out without explaining why he would not vote for his own administration’s motion. Grow up with the country indeed.

The result of yesterday’s meeting is far from ideal but with such wide-ranging proposals needed to deal with a seemingly inflexible government approach, it was never going to be.

In summary, the city must deliver up land which can provide 32,000 new homes as demanded by the Scottish Government’s plan for south-east Scotland, and to meet the target every scrap of available land will be needed. As current sites leave the city 8000 short of the target, it means something green has to go.

How that target has been reached is another matter, but it’s there and if rejected planning applications go to a Scottish Government reporter on appeal, the likelihood is that permission would be granted for that reason.

Green councillor Nigel Bagshaw commented that a figure of 107,000 new homes needed for south-east Scotland seems bloated. More explanation from the Scottish Government about how its calculations were reached would be helpful and perhaps Edinburgh MSP Jim Eadie, a vocal opponent of the Craighouse development, could help supply some answers

So the Labour-SNP coalition has approved an approach in which the growth of Edinburgh is now headed towards the west, something the city has strained against for years but now it seems to be bowing to the inevitable.

Caving in some will call it, others will regard it as seeing sense, but in purely political terms, the latter is very much the case. Only Cllr Bagshaw voiced opposition to any building on the green belt and even though they voted against the coalition, the Conservatives accepted that greenfield land in the right circumstances can be developed.

In particular it means the A8-M8 corridor will now be the focus of a new study and from what I could see development there is now all but inevitable. It is not going to be dug up any time soon, but it will represent by far the most significant change to the city’s footprint since the 1960s.

Sure, there will be an almighty stooshie, and the conservation lobby will be readying themselves for a long slog. So too is opposition to the development at Brunstane likely to shift into a higher gear in the months ahead, if Councillor Maureen Child’s warning is anything to go by.

There were no protests or deputations yesterday, but no-one should be fooled into thinking it will stay that way. Anyone remember the Dalkeith bypass or M77 protests?

The presumption that brownfield land will still be developed first is still there and the Granton waterfront will be developed eventually, but the council has no power to force developers to build where they don’t want to. There was no mention yesterday of removing Britannia Quay from housing projections, something which will dismay Forth Ports.

But the principle of development to the left of the City Bypass, even though limited to Gogar Station Road, is now close to acceptance and that would be the first step to the creation of the Garden District on land owned by Sir David Murray.

As planning consultant Hazel Sears correctly argued in yesterday’s Evening News, the Garden District does not solve all Edinburgh’s housing problems and nor should the whole Local Development Plan be ripped up (which is not what I argued last week, Ms Sears) but it does make a hugely significant contribution to the way other problematic schemes can be approached.

Put simply, the prospect of allowing up to 3500 new homes in an area which affects relatively few people means the pressure to build 3500 homes on someone else’s doorstep is reduced.

But for now, 3,500 homes will not be built at Gogar any time soon and any development will be limited to around 850 homes on a site bounded by the A8, M8, the City Bypass and Gogar Station Road. Why the site can’t go down to the A71 Calder Road, or include the rough ground behind the RBS headquarters I don’t know, but it’s a start.

Conservative Councillor Joanna Mowat conjured up a vision of a new New Town to the west, and while the chances of her neo-classical Palladian idyll are probably limited, the principle of taking control of a properly-planned new district where all infrastructure considerations are the basis, not an afterthought, is correct.

What happens now is that a new plan will be published as soon as possible and evidence taken in a six week-period up till October. An updated report will be produced by February which will then be subjected to an independent examination the results of which will be produced in September next year. Finally the plan could be adopted by the start of 2016.

And in the meantime the planning applications will continue to come in. Confused? No wonder. But don’t blame the council.

PUBLIC INQUIRIES

Two scandals, one judge-led inquiry; some weeks ago I predicted the Scottish Government would not launch a public inquiry intro the baby ashes scandal and so it has transpired.

A further investigation will take place because of the nationwide extent of the practice, but those who were responsible will not be called upon to account for their actions in public, unlike those involved with the tram project.

Lord Hardie, who will preside over the trams hearings, is by all accounts a tough man and those called before him could have a very uncomfortable experience. A few reputations were tarnished by the trams mess but they all got paid, most of them handsomely, and it is right that they supply answers in the light of day for what went on.

But those responsible for the baby ashes disgrace will face no such process. I would argue that what was at worst a callous disregard for basic feelings and at best a misguided and pointless shortening of a natural grieving process – and across Scotland too – should be subjected to public scrutiny too.

Yet parents already suffering the worst anguish imaginable were denied the right to say a proper farewell to their little ones because council officials at Mortonhall and elsewhere took it upon themselves to claim there were no remains after cremation when that was not the case. The pain on those parents’ faces years later is plain to see.

Why were they lied to? Why couldn’t hose parents have been given something, anything, from the cremation process to carry out the final rite of parting? It would have made absolutely no difference to the crematoria operators but a huge difference to the parents. None of the reports so far adequately explains that.

By contrast, while we might be very angry indeed at the waste of money involved in the stupid wrangles which engulfed the tram project, no-one’s life was wrecked irreparably. Yes, some businesses went under but those people can recover.

At the heart of the tram debacle is a contractual dispute and no inquiry is going to resolve that. It might apportion blame, but it is unlikely to recommend much other than advising either side of a commercial agreement to make sure they are happy with the deal and then stick to its terms.

So can someone from the Scottish Government please explain why there should be a judge-led public hearing into one and not the other? Right now we are left with an impression that wrecking public finances ranks higher than wrecking vulnerable people’s lives.