John McLellan: Meadowbank grounds for concern

SRU chief executive Mark Dodson. Picture: Jane Barlow
SRU chief executive Mark Dodson. Picture: Jane Barlow
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It’s been a difficult week for Scottish rugby; the controversial defeat by Wales was bad enough but star forward Richie Gray has been invalided out for the rest of the season and lynchpin Finn Russell has been banned for two games for what many would regard as a technical offence.

But if anger about events on the pitch can be swept away by good performances in the remaining matches, a bitter row which could threaten the very future of professional club rugby in Edinburgh will be much more difficult to resolve.

And if there is fury at last Sunday’s referee, Glen Jackson, I am told it is more than matched by equal outrage back in the direction of SRU chief executive Mark Dodson.

At issue is the breakdown of the relationship between the SRU and the city council over the decision by the council to go ahead with a plan for a 500-seater athletics facility to replace the crumbling Meadowbank Stadium.

In widely reported remarks from his Six Nations press conference a fortnight ago, Mr Dodson said he found the council’s 
decision “baffling and poor” and in turn insiders describe the reaction of council chief executive Sue Bruce as “incandescence”.

Not surprisingly, both sides blame each other for the dispute.

On one hand, the SRU accuses the council of doing nothing to help Edinburgh Rugby, of failing to understand the advantages a top city-wide sports outfit can bring as a marketing tool or the educational benefits of spreading the rugby ethos.

It points to excellent relationships with the other authorities with which it deals as examples of their willingness to collaborate, in particular Glasgow City Council.

It’s difficult to argue that Glasgow Warriors, now sitting on top of the Rabo Direct League and a finalist last year, has not benefited from a settled home at council-owned Scotstoun, where retractable stands mean the atmosphere is good and games are regularly sold out while the athletics facility is preserved.

The SRU also points to East Ayrshire Council where the recent autumn test at Kilmarnock’s Rugby Park led to a council investment in rugby academies.

By contrast, it says, Edinburgh council has failed to meet halfway and priced the work needed to turn Meadowbank into a Scotstoun equivalent so high that it could have included gold taps.

The SRU reckons a Scotstoun-style stadium could be built for around 
£20 million but the council’s private estimate is nearer £40m.

“We work successfully with other authorities but they don’t want to work with us and we’ve pretty much had it with them,” said a source.

But Edinburgh council officials paint a different picture. They say the SRU wants everything on a plate and despite repeated requests the SRU has failed to let them know what they want at Meadowbank and to produce a 
business plan.

“They think they are God’s gift to sport. We have asked them over and over again for details of what they need and we have received nothing,” said one official.

The Meadowbank plan, the council argues, is flexible enough to be developed as a home for a team sport if only they could have something to discuss.

Officials also point out that cash is not something of which they have an abundance.

Which council does, retorts the SRU.

Wherever the truth lies – and as usual it will be somewhere in the middle – the fact is the relationship became so strained that Mr Dodson decided he had nothing to lose by speaking out on a public platform, and it was no accident he did.

It is also a fact that Sue Bruce and her number two, Alastair Maclean, are so furious with Mr Dodson that it will take a bit more than kissing to make up.

So where does that leave Edinburgh Rugby? As it was put to me, “decent facilities are needed for the future of the franchise” and it is accepted that 
Murrayfield is unsuitable.

Neither are the other grounds used recently, Myreside and Meggetland, but both have given Edinburgh fans a reminder of what rugby at this level should be like: the crowd far closer to the bone-crunching contests than they can be at the big internationals.

It puts them within touching distance of international stars now far more distanced from the average rugby follower than was the case in the last days of the amateur game when the likes of Watsonians v Melrose at Myreside attracted over 1000 more people than watched Edinburgh v Ospreys there last Friday.

The SRU says it has a number of options it can consider, the first and most obvious being the back pitches at 
Murrayfield where Edinburgh Wanderers still play.

But that will need planning permission and has implications for the flood defences so some lines of 
communication with the council will need to be maintained.

There is also the sports village proposal at the heart of the Garden District scheme for West Edinburgh and senior figures involved with that plan were at Myreside last Friday.

But while the SRU is not actively preparing for a complete move out the city if a proper home cannot be found then this is something it is prepared to contemplate. Even use of the term franchise suggests mobility.

Relations with Aberdeen Council are said to be good, but judging by the mess Aberdeen FC got into with the council over plans to replace Pittodrie, any honeymoon might be short.

Heads in Edinburgh need bashing before it gets that far and if that’s what Mark Dodson hoped he would achieve, so far he’s been sadly mistaken.

HOUSING DECISION COULD STILL BE EIGHT LONG MONTHS AWAY

The decision to kick the Local Development Plan beyond the general election should surprise no-one; it’s far too toxic to be caught up in the argy-bargy of what will be a tense campaign.

Already the blame game is being played out between the two unhappy city coalition bed-fellows of Labour and the SNP. And with a council election in 2017 to follow next year’s Scottish Parliament vote, there will be very little the political marriage guidance councillors can do other than to advise they somehow stick it out for the sake of the family.

The LDP, which should provide the future framework for all construction in the city for years to come, should have been debated and agreed next week but the decision will now be taken the week after the May 7 election at the earliest.

Labour is blaming the delay on the SNP government for calling in the housing proposal for greenbelt land at Cammo, saying it is impossible to set a policy guideline if the government sets out a different approach.

The SNP on the other hand blames Labour for not agreeing to strike out the bitterly opposed Cammo plan and instead proceed with other schemes away from mass local opposition like the Garden District around Gogar.

It’s agreed there is a housing problem, affordable or otherwise, and that existing land allocation is not going to meet projected demand.

Labour argues it has accepted unpopular decisions in what it previously regarded as its own back yard, like Newcraighall, Burdiehouse and Moredun while what the SNP regards as key territory in West Edinburgh is protected. The SNP argues that it is listening to local concern.

However, the decision to call in the Cammo plan and five others because of appeals against council rejections suggests the government is minded to overturn the refusals so its housing targets can be met. That’s the last thing the SNP locally wants to risk.

So the chances of the minister responsible, Alex Neil, approving a decision before May look slim but with election lockdown likely after the summer recess, I suspect a result will emerge before the end of June.

That means agreement on the LDP could stretch into autumn and still be eight months away after a process which started four years ago.

Reaction has been predictably angry, accusations of incompetence or worse against the council have not been hard to find and has led several to question if anyone is actually running the city.

As far as housing is concerned, when a majority government sets the targets and the same government calls in major decisions affecting those targets, the answer is the government. And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, that’s the SNP.

Council wasting money

How do you waste tax-payers’ money and send out a negative signal about the city in one easy move. No, not the trams, but the council move to take the Scottish Government’s decision to overturn the rejection of the Lutton Place student flats development in Southside to the Court of Session.

Sources close to the case say the Council has almost no chance of success because judges can only overturn the Government’s decision on a point of law or procedure, not because they might agree the plan is inappropriate.

In any case, the Council objection is based not on legislation but their own policy guidelines designed to prevent high numbers of students living in any one area, again based on arbitrary zones the council has drawn up itself.

What is all the more incredible about the Lutton Place scheme is that the land was sold by the council in the first place, so it appears the city authorities want to make money by sale of property they don’t want but continue to dictate its use after the deal has been struck

So the Council wastes money on a legal process it will almost certainly lose for what it likely to be little more than a signal to any organisation thinking about student accommodation plans in the middle of town that they too could face a long and expensive legal battle.

That is what is now faced by Unite, the student homes firm whose plans for a 550-bed quadrangle on the site of the St Leonards Homebase store were thrown out last week and which is now going to appeal.

If anyone was in any doubt about the scale of the problem facing students in Edinburgh it was the story in the Evening News earlier this week that the race to find somewhere to live as like something from The Hunger Games. Scrambling to find a suitable flat is part and parcel of undergraduate life, but it should not be like a fight to the death.

The Cockburn Association was quick off the mark to make an unfavourable comment on Twitter about the accompanying picture of queuing students, asking “how these queues compare with housing waiting lists?” as if one is somehow less deserving than the other.

I’m not sure since when whipping up antagonism against students was part of the Cockburn Association’s constitution (I was a member, it isn’t) but someone in the organisation obviously thought it might be a bit over the top and the tweet disappeared.

But it’s still pretty distasteful that anyone acting for a supposedly respectable civic charity should think it was appropriate in the first place to endorse what is a rather nasty undercurrent to this debate.

Showing rather more discretion, Edinburgh University is keeping its head well down but as with the housing targets, the city needs to address the needs of the university sector and come up with a proper plan for the future.