CONTROVERSIAL plans to build 1320 homes on the outskirts of the Capital have been thrown into doubt – due to complaints from a nearby “experimental farm facility”.
Former Rangers owner Sir David Murray wants to construct houses, shops, a new primary school and community facilities on greenbelt land between the City Bypass and the RBS headquarters at Gogarburn.
His proposals were given the go-ahead at a full council meeting in June, but now Scottish Government ministers have “called in” the application and moved to take matters into their own hands.
The plans were referred to government ministers because of a high-profile objection from the nearby base of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (Sasa), a government agency tasked with battling crop diseases and growing “historic” potatoes and peas, alongside other plants.
Boasting “a world-class laboratory, glasshouse and experimental farm facility”, Sasa also tests new crops, monitors pesticides and acts as the Scottish Government’s inspectorate of genetically modified crops.
The facility claims Sir David’s vision – which is just the first phase of his wider, £1 billion “Garden District” plans for around 6000 homes – would “pose a threat to the integrity of the work being carried out”.
It said the current greenbelt location “provides a high degree of bio-security necessary for the scientific work being carried out”.
It continued: “Sasa’s land needs to be protected from breaches to plant health condition through substantial pressure from walkers, domestic pets adversely affecting crop trails, litter and surface water run-off associated with sub-urbanisation.”
Because Sasa is a government body, the Garden District plans were referred to ministers after being approved by the council. And towards the end of last month, the government decided to give itself the final say over whether the scheme becomes reality.
As well as Sasa’s complaints, ministers raised concerns over the “potential impacts on infrastructure within the west Edinburgh area”.
However, it is understood it could take as long as nine months to a year before any final decision is made. And it is not yet known whether the application will be subject to a hearing or public inquiry.
The move will cause concern among those backing the Garden District, as a Scottish Government planning reporter previously slammed the scheme as “not a reasonable site for housing development”.
In their mammoth, 886-page verdict on Edinburgh City Council’s local development plan (LDP) – its city-wide planning blueprint – the government official ruled out including the Garden District in order to relieve housebuilding pressure elsewhere.
They said the site had “poor accessibility” and should be retained as green belt, insisting any development would “affect the landscape setting of the city”.
The Garden District was not included in the LDP when it was signed off by councillors last year, but a council motion made a recommendation in favour of it.
City leaders and campaigners hoped that by pushing the plans forward, they could reduce the pressure to build homes in more contentious areas.
Residents in Cammo, for example, believed their site could be removed from the LDP if Sir David’s vision was given planning permission.
A spokeswoman for Cammo Residents Association previously said they were “devastated” Cammo Fields remained in the LDP despite the Garden District receiving the green light.
It is understood the council is gearing up to make a representation in favour of the Garden District at any future government hearing over the issue.
Councillor Alex Lunn, vice-convener of the planning committee, said the scheme would have a “huge positive impact” on the city’s housing shortfall if it was allowed to go ahead.
Government officials have estimated Edinburgh faces a “significant shortfall” in housing over the next five years – requiring more homes to be built every year than “anything historically achieved even in the most positive economic circumstances”.
They say the Capital needs an extra 15,034 new homes by 2019 – a figure many believe simply won’t be met. More than 25,000 extra houses are needed by 2026.
And in the short term, officials predict a five-year housing shortfall of between 4700 and 7119 homes will remain even if all the sites currently included in the LDP are developed.
Murray Estates, which is behind the Garden District plans, insists this shortfall provides one of the strongest arguments for their proposals.
But campaigners argue Edinburgh has “thousands of empty homes, acres of brownfield sites and land banked by developers” that should be opened up before builders push into the green belt.
Greens planning spokesman Councillor Nigel Bagshaw blasted the Garden District as “1960s, 1970s-type urban sprawl”.
He said: “There was never any guarantee that including the Garden District would take pressure of other greenbelt sites that were being considered for unpopular development.
“But I hope that the ministers will make the right decision and not allow the Garden District to go ahead, in line with the council’s policies.” He previously said the planning committee members who backed the scheme should “hang their heads in shame”.
Jestyn Davies, managing director of Murray Estates, said the Scottish Government was “very specific in confirming that there is a significant shortfall in the council’s five-year housing supply, which it has recently confirmed is over 7000 homes”.
He said: “It is this shortfall that the council has sought to reduce through the approval of the Garden District proposals.
“We also note the comments made about the Sasa agricultural facility, and remain confident that all of the issues raised in that regard can be resolved satisfactorily.
“We believe that our proposals for a world-class extension to Edinburgh remain on track, and look forward to the ministers’ decision in due course.”
Councillor Ian Perry, the city’s planning leader, said: “We were disappointed that the Scottish Government reporter did not agree with the council that the Garden District should be included in the local development plan.
“If it had been, it would have allowed the council to remove some sites identified as concerning by the local community from the original LDP.”
Government documents show the Garden District plans were called in on July 26.
Letters urging those who would like to take part in any potential hearing or inquiry to get in touch were sent out last week.