John McLellan: Solution for planning mystery

A proposal to build 670 houses in Cammo has met extremely stiff opposition. Picture: Ian Rutherford
A proposal to build 670 houses in Cammo has met extremely stiff opposition. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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At last we have a solution for the great Scottish Government planning mystery.

Control is firmly in the hands of social justice and communities minister Alex Neil who has just gone over the heads of local planning councillors to take charge of six major housing proposals across the Lothians.

Frustrated by the length of time it has been taking to get schemes through the local planning process, developers complained and now the new minister has decided he can’t wait for councillors to make up their minds and he will take the decisions.

But with a clear indication from the Scottish Government that rulings should favour development unless there is very good reason to object, permission will almost certainly be granted.

If so, there will be dismay in Cammo, where a proposal for 670 houses is meeting particularly stiff opposition and where valid concerns about the impact of more traffic on the Barnton and Maybury junctions will need to be addressed. There would be even greater dismay among local SNP councillors who support the campaign. A presumption to approve does not mean schemes will go through unaltered and in the case of Cammo at least there is a short route between Alex Neil’s department and Transport Scotland, so solutions can surely be found.

Until the Referendum, planning was the responsibility of junior minister Derek Mackay who reported into Nicola Sturgeon as part of her brief as Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities. But in her reshuffle, when the new First Minister handed MacKay’s brief to Marco Biagi, the planning bit of the remit had strangely morphed into community empowerment.

At Cabinet level, the ultimate responsibility for planning was handed to Alex Neil, but that appeared to be down the list of his considerable portfolio, behind things like democratic renewal, elections and, yes, community empowerment.

It’s hardly surprising there has been some confusion about who is responsible for what when the minster actually responsible for planning and housing carries the title of Cabinet Secretary for social justice, communities and pensioners’ rights.

Just as confusing is the fact that the Cabinet Secretary for Investment, Infrastructure and Cities isn’t responsible for business improvement districts or town centres which are part of the sprawling social justice brief.

But now we know exactly where planning sits and we have a better idea of the Scottish Government’s attitude. Wily old Alex Neil, a doughty veteran who knows pretty much all the tricks in the book, is in command and he wants houses built.

Marco Biagi, who has opposed several Edinburgh projects, now finds himself in as difficult a position as local councillors. After Derek Mackay refused to re-examine the Craighouse decision, Edinburgh South MP Ian Murray lost no time in asking Biagi to call it in. It now looks like Murray wrote to the wrong person.

How this plays out politically in an election year perhaps gives some insight into SNP thinking, given Neil has no fear of pork-barrel local politics. As health minister, Nicola Sturgeon agreed with clinical opinion that some small hospital units should be closed and resources concentrated in larger centres of excellence. In particular it meant the removal of 48 acute mental health beds at Monklands hospital in Neil’s Airdrie constituency but no sooner did he succeed Sturgeon at health and the decision was reversed.

He will know full well that taking a decision like Cammo out of Edinburgh Council’s hands, and in all probability giving the go-ahead, will be a guaranteed vote loser in Edinburgh West. He’ll also be aware the SNP constituency office is on the Queensferry Road a few yards from the already chaotic Barnton junction.

Winning Edinburgh West when it was one of the most solidly anti-independence constituencies at the Referendum was always going to be a tall order and this suggests he thinks so too. If the constituency party picks former footballer Michael Stewart from the short-list to be their candidate, he might have his eyes opened to the cut and thrust of real local politics.

Picture the scene on the doorstep, somewhere in East Craigs:

MS: Hello, I’m Michael Stewart, your local SNP candidate. You might have seen me on Sportscene. Can I count on your support to deliver a fairer, more equal Scotland?

Voter: Are you no that turncoat who signed for the Haerts efter leaving the Hibs?

MS: With all respect, I’m no here to talk about my footballing past, but your future, the future of Scotland, the future of your community.

Voter: My community? Haven’t your lot just said they can build 700 hooses across the road? How are we gonny get out the drive in the morning?

MS: Housing is a serious problem and we need to find more homes for families to bring up their bairns.

Voter: Bairns? Did you play for them as well?

MS: Look, I went to Craigmount High. I know this place.

Voter: Well you should know what a nightmare it’s gonny be. Anyway, I voted naw.

MS (sighs): I’ll put you down as a mibbe...

Ok, so he might stick to Drylaw, but the problem is clear. There are no easy answers for housing demand and whatever happens someone is going to lose out. Neil looks like he wants to cut through and get on with it.

Much less contentious are the proposals for 72 houses at The Wisp and 173 nearby on the Old Dalkeith Road, both in Edinburgh East. There is nothing like the same level of local opposition and the problems are much more technical and theoretical. It might play to Labour’s advantage there but not hugely so.

Whether popular or not, the principal of getting on with tackling Edinburgh’s housing shortage and allowing appropriate development where it makes sense in places like Cammo and The Wisp is correct.

By and large, Edinburgh’s planning system is getting it right but it does take time and shortening the process will have political consequences.

Seeming to ride roughshod over due processes allows the SNP’s opponents to badge them as anti-democratic. As the proud new minister for community empowerment, I doubt that was what Marco Biagi was signing up for.

20mph crawl on main roads will drive us mad

A majority support the plan to turn Edinburgh into a 20mph city, according to the results of a Council consultation but statistics can have a funny way of telling you what you want to hear.

What’s beyond doubt is that Edinburgh drivers are going to find life increasingly tough, with a strong chance parking charges will be introduced on Sundays and the evening limit extended later this year.

We know cameras no longer need film in them to trap drivers so with a plan to introduce 20mph limits on 80 per cent of the city’s roads, can we expect more cameras?

There is, as the Council’s report acknowledges, no point in introducing restrictions if there is no way to police them, but opening up so many roads to new limits isn’t going to be matched by more traffic cops.

I don’t doubt most people support extending the 20mph limit into more residential roads, but on main roads I’m not so sure. What exactly will be achieved by cutting speed along roads like Slateford Road, Queen Street, Ferry Road and Inverleith Road other than to make journeys longer and increase frustration? What are the accident statistics on these streets which justify such a drastic change?

Apart from obvious stuff like slower speeds mean less serious collisions (bring back the bloke with the red flag perhaps?) the Council’s justification is stretching it.

Are we really expected to believe that a virtual blanket reduction will lead to “more social interaction” or “stronger communities”? How so?

How will slowing traffic on Dalry Road make me “feel more confident” about walking back home from Haymarket? It might make the odd bam lurching out the Dickens Bar feel more confident about staggering into moving traffic, but I doubt that’s the point.

At least the plan is to be reviewed and there is a chance to drive some balance into what seems like another step towards the impossible goal of the risk and danger-free world.

Unless, of course, the 20mph crawl along main roads dotted with speed cameras is a cheaper way to cut down on pothole damage.

Perfect riposte to Charlie Hedbo attack is to celebrate and defend right to poke fun at the pompous

There is little I can add to the words of condolence and defiance which followed the massacre at French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

The freedom to poke fun and prick the pompous is precious and the response to this outrage should be to celebrate and defend that liberty, not to restrict it by turning those who have done nothing but express views we might find abhorrent into criminals.

The pen will ultimately be mightier than the Kalashnikov, but not if the product of that pen must first pass a test set by an authority, however well-meaning at the outset.

Direct threats are a different matter, but those people who post vile abuse on websites and social media when they read or see material with which they disagree – as they should be able to do – must remember where irrational hatred can lead.