Martin Hannan: Why are we so wild about west?

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There are a lot of lawyers, architects and planning consultants in this city who are licking their lips at the prospect of some juicy contracts emanating from the proposed sale of 365 acres of land to the west of Edinburgh.

It is another consequence of what every sensible person predicted when the RBS Group put heavy-duty pressure on Edinburgh City Council so it could build its world HQ at Gogarburn. I’ve heard it referred to as Fred’s Folly, but actually Mr Goodwin was only part of the process which led to the development that single-handedly burst the whole green belt apart.

That was not a bad thing. The green belt has, for too long, been an excuse for NIMBY types to stop all kinds of development. But the belt’s worth keeping in general, no question.

On the one hand, I am happy that the stagnant property market is reviving. But on the other I am worried that this is possibly a development too far.

For why is it necessary? Why should this land be sold off, presumably to a housebuilder?

The green belt is not sacrosanct and never should be, but the informed suggestion that up to 2000 houses could be built on the site begs a lot of questions.

For instance, why is Edinburgh West the chosen area for development? Why not the area south of Heriot-Watt University – oops, the Currie and Balerno brigade will be traumatised by that thought – or the land between Burdiehouse and the bypass?

I have no idea who’ll have the guts to invest in this site in Edinburgh West, or if any major development will ever take place out there. I would merely ask this question: “Why are we as a city allowing the building of what is effectively a new small town when the previous ‘new town’ plan has demonstrably failed?”

I am referring to the South East Wedge projects that have been ongoing for donkey’s years. You may recall that, when it was announced, the two local councils and the developers involved were hugely keen to promote the idea of Shawfair as a “new town”, which would have all the sustainable qualities that even the greenest of politicians could hope for – an obvious attempt to placate the green belt lobby.

Some 4000 houses and a new “town centre” with retail and business operations and community facilities, all linked to the city by better public transport links, including the new Borders railway – the Waverley line, – with a Shawfair halt.

It has turned out to be a pie-in-the-sky pipedream because, apart from the Shawfair Business Park – which, I have to say, is looking pretty good – and the excellent park-and-ride bus hub, nothing else has happened.

The reason why is simple – the backside fell out of the housing market in 2008 and, right now, you could give away 4000 houses, including 800 “affordables” as was planned there, but you couldn’t sell them for love nor money.

In no way are Midlothian or Edinburgh council to blame for the failure of Shawfair. Nor can Miller Developments, the main private-sector partner, be blamed for pulling out in 2009.

For once, our local authorities were trying to do what is right and encourage development on land largely recovered from the mining industry, while Miller was prepared to shoulder a heavy burden, at least until it became clear that Shawfair “new town” was unviable. Market forces killed it, no question.

One problem for the whole South East Wedge is that the Waverley Line has undergone route adjustments and much of the area, and indeed the development of the entire Wedge, has been affected.

There is deep disquiet among residents and businesses in areas such as Millerhill and Newtown about what is going to happen with the railway. They have asked, but answers have been less than comprehensive – there should be much more information about what is really going on about the railway and the whole development.

For example, because of Shawfair’s failure, serious questions have to be asked about the long blight caused to the area by the protracted planning process for the railway.

The main point about the South East Wedge is that it shows there is already plenty of space in Edinburgh which could accommodate development, so why do we need more to the west?

Builders could have any amount of brownfield space across Edinburgh but that is not what the market wants or needs – right now, the market can’t sell diddly squat except new houses on new land.

A few years ago you could put up any old heap of garbage anywhere in the city and be guaranteed to sell it. The market was booming and people were desperate to get on the property ladder. All sorts of planning and development policies to encourage building in the city were brought forward. Some even worked.

Now it’s all different, and buyers are much more choosy – that’s those buyers who can actually afford to purchase a house.

It will be very interesting to see which planning policies still apply to the likely new Edinburgh West development, while they clearly don’t apply to the “new town” of Shawfair. For one simple reason – it’s not there. Build Shawfair first, and then worry about the west.