Malcolm Fraser: Why not make Madelvic our engine for change?

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Buildings make useful scapegoats upon which to lay blame all sorts of social and economic ills.

The people who lived in Craigmillar lacked jobs, but rather than confront this as the root of their problems, it was easier to blame things on the sturdy 1930s tenements they lived in.

So, instead of the TLC the buildings needed, to fit insulation, better heating and new windows to make them fit for the next 70 years, down they came, demolished to create a load of gap sites, with vast amounts of public money needed to rebuild the community. Nice work though, for the urban regeneration consultants who directed it.

The bursting of such banking and housing bubbles has left many more derelict sites across Edinburgh’s Waterfront. My architectural practice was involved with one of them, around the Madelvic building, where we proposed a mixed site of flats plus family homes in its old car works.
Car works! It was extraordinary to find that Edinburgh – not, we usually understand, a hotbed of industrial history – possessed what is said to be the oldest purpose-built car factory in Britain, producing Madelvic electric cars in 1898.

Though no great beauty, the building represented a unique slice of social and industrial history and – even better, to us – could convert nicely to family homes.

What was a puzzle though, was that the optimal form of conversion, into Colony-style family flats, was never accepted and our client – and the planner – insisted on big townhouses or “work-live” units – none of which would, in our opinion, find cash-rich, chi-chi buyers in that part of town.

When the housing bubble burst all sites like this lost their finance. However, on this one the money men could blame their problems on the old building – as if its retention was the issue and not the general market crash – and its demolition was therefore given planning approval.

So we end up in the extraordinary position, that in a derelict part of Edinburgh, full of vacant, weed-filled sites, we are told it is necessary to pull down the one, remaining, piece of history, in order to build homes there.

But there is hope. The regeneration company Places for People is now to redevelop the site and a public consultation is about to begin. The company makes much of its commitment to social and corporate responsibility. It cares about such things. Surely it will look at the best use of the buildings, and test their use as Colony-style family homes.

Or, even better, speak to John McLaren, who has advanced plans for a National Motor Heritage Trust museum in the buildings, with funders and partners seriously interested. What a fantastic focus around which to build a new community – a true place for people.

Malcolm Fraser is an Edinburgh architect