Architect and campaigner share their views on how to handle Scotland’s derelict sites

Stead's Place, Leith Walk. Picture: TSPL
Stead's Place, Leith Walk. Picture: TSPL
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Edinburgh architect Dr James Simpson and Save Leith Walk campaigner Ian Hood share their views on how to handle Scotland’s derelict sites, as it’s announced that Scottish councils are to receive new powers that will allow them to order the sale of ‘eyesore’ derelict sites.

Architect

Dr James Simpson, founder of Edinburgh architectural firm Simpson & Brown. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Dr James Simpson, founder of Edinburgh architectural firm Simpson & Brown. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

I was brought up in the old burgh of Duns, then the county town of Berwickshire, and I have lived for forty three years in the Edinburgh ‘village’ of Stockbridge. I love town centres and the living and working communities that occupy them. Sir Patrick Geddes pointed out a century ago that towns are complex living organisms and that keeping a place and a community in good heart requires care, skill and continuous vigilance. Property ownership is an important factor in the mix. Owners have rights, but they also have responsibilities. When an owner is clearly neglecting not just a property, but also the interests of the community in which it is set, it is entirely reasonable that its sale should be enforced by the Council through a compulsory sale order.

As an architect and a conservation activist, I have always been conscious of ‘eyesores’, derelict sites and vacant buildings. They all detract from the quality of a place and every one is a missed opportunity in environmental, social and economic terms. Securing a change of ownership cannot, however, be an end in itself, it is just the beginning: unintended consequences are an ever present risk. Essential to a good outcome will be active engagement of the community, usually through the Community Council and local groups, and clear, proactive use of the planning system to ensure not just a minimum acceptable standard, or the replacement of one sort of eyesore by another, but positive improvement in physical terms, with other real benefits to the community. Every CSO should be accompanied by a Planning Statement: this need not be a long or complex document, a side of A4 should usually suffice, but it should state clearly the sort of uses and development quality expected. It is important that purchasers should not sacrifice quality as a consequence of having paid too much for a site.

It is, I understand, intended that Community Councils should be encouraged to maintain registers of vacant sites – including ‘aerial gap sites’, where buildings have been reduced to a single storey – derelict or disused land and empty or underused buildings, and to submit lists of sites suitable for Compulsory Sale Orders to Councils. A major opportunity for the use of CSOs will be disused houses and flats over shops: many High Streets, particularly in the small burghs, are full of such empty properties, which should make fine houses in the heart of their communities. CSO’s will also offer opportunities for charitable Community Development Trusts – ‘not for profit’ developers – to engage actively in the creation of houses, community gardens and other assets. Used well, Compulsory Sale Orders will do a great deal of good.

Dr James Simpson is the founder of Edinburgh architectural firm Simpson & Brown and Scottish vice-president for the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS-UK)

READ MORE: New powers will allow councils to order sale of Scotland’s derelict sites

Campaigner

Compulsory sale orders could be really helpful for grassroots organisations like the “Save Leith Walk Campaign”. Giving councils the power to buy up derelict land and buildings could put more pressure on developers to listen to local campaigns and would even provide a last resort option for local councils to ensure that new development partners have a chance with much better proposals.

Save Leith Walk is currently challenging developers, Drum Property Group over their proposals for the demolition of an iconic long and low sandstone building at Stead’s Place on Leith Walk. The building is popular locally with thousands of people objecting to its demolition. Its replacement with a monolithic 600 bedroom student residence and hotel complex when there is a desperate need for social housing in the area has worried many locals.

The campaign has identified many major material considerations, in plain English, flaws in the plans that are likely to lead Edinburgh Council to reject the developer’s plans at a planning hearing later this month.

However the developer has been terminating the leases of the local businesses who have kept the property alive in recent years and the remaining few are on notice. All the empty properties have been boarded up and are slowly being covered with graffiti, one by one. Despite interest from local artists and entrepreneurs for short term lets, the developer has refused to grant any new leases.

The developer says that this is so they can have “vacant possession” as soon as planning permission is granted. An alternative view would be that given the option of a long term derelict site or the developer’s plans perhaps the council would reluctantly side with the developer.

Compulsory Sale Orders would undercut that argument. No longer could developers leave a building derelict and becoming a local eyesore until councils caved and supported developments that didn’t meet planning code.

Some opponents of Compulsory Sale Orders call them an infringement on property rights. But developers always have another option. There are clear plans and policies about what is allowed and what range of things can be developed in each area. But until all property developers start following such simple rules, then Compulsory Sale Orders are a great idea.

Ian Hood is a spokesman for the Save Leith Walk campaign group