Community bid to take over Astley Ainslie site

Robin Harper, interim chair of the Astley Ainslie Community Trust.
Robin Harper, interim chair of the Astley Ainslie Community Trust.
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A COMMUNITY trust is drawing up plans to take over the massive Astley Ainslie hospital site in Morningside. NHS Lothian is expected to put the buildings and grounds up for sale within the next few years once services have been transferred to the redeveloped Royal Edinburgh Hospital.

And residents have got together in a bid to stop developers moving in and taking over the whole site – running to around 50 acres – for housing.

The Astley Ainslie Community Trust (AACT) has now been awarded funding from the Scottish Government to carry out a consultation on how people would like to see the site used.

Former Green MSP Robin Harper, who is convener of the trust, said the priority was to preserve the public access which people currently enjoy to the site’s open spaces.

But he said the trust would be looking to co-operate with developers over building a mix of housing, including sheltered accommodation and affordable homes.

He said: “We need balance between private and public interest on the site. Astley Ainslie is an oasis of green in South Edinburgh, owned by the people of Scotland since the NHS took possession of the site in 1940s, and we want it to continue as a space that provides health and wellbeing benefits for the people of Edinburgh.”

The government funding of almost £12,000 for community-led design will allow the trust to hold a series of events early next year where the public can give their views.

Mr Harper said: “These funds will help us give local people in South Edinburgh the opportunity to create a community vision for the Astley Ainslie site and how it should be developed.

“This is a huge opportunity to do things with the land as well a providing a range of housing.”

Willie McGhee, a member of the AACT steering group, said the trust had no definitive proposal for development of the site.

“We want to ask the community,” he said. “It would be good to take some or all of the land and buildings into community ownership, should the community have a vision for doing something with it.

“We would like to see the maximum public benefit for local people and Edinburgh city in general.

“What would be undesirable would be a volume builder coming in a planting 200 of 300 houses, possibly more, on the site and filling it up with three- to five-bedroom houses as they are doing all the way round Edinburgh at the moment.”

He said some people favoured taking over the entire site, but not necessarily running it all. It may be a housing association would be interested in building on two or three different parts of the site and then a private developer would offer to take a couple of listed buildings, he said.

“But we would like to preserve as much of the green space as possible because it’s a recreational resource and a source of great health and wellbeing.”

Mr McGhee said the community consultation had to be carried out by March 2019 and he explained the process from then on.

“People will give views, then presuming people are positive we move to a feasibility study – that’s when you start looking at the hard commercial facts, trying to put some flesh on the bones.

“It has to turn from a vision and an aspiration to something that is more hard-headed and realistic. A business plan would be produced and at that point we would be able to go back to the community and say ‘This is what it looks like, what do you think?’

“At that point the community would have to decide: shall we make a bid for this piece of land? We can’t make a bid for it until be have an acceptable business plan.”

The Astley Ainslie hospital was opened in 1923 with money left by East Lothian farmer David Ainslie who died in 1900 and wanted a convalescent hospital to be founded in memory of his nephew John Astley Ainslie.

The site acquired for the hospital already had a long history of health provision.

In the 15th and 16th centuries it was part of the common land of the city and during virulent attacks of the plague, the sick were taken there to the chapel of St Roque, the patron saint of plague victims.

The dead were buried around the chapel, now an archaeological site. The chapel was demolished in the late 18th century, and the land became rich and productive, successfully feeding Edinburgh. By the middle of the 19th century, villas and cottages were built with large gardens.

When the hospital opened, the Astley Ainslie site consisted of four mansion houses and their grounds – Millbank, Southbank, Canaan House and Canaan Park.

It later expanded to include two more buildings with their grounds Morelands and St Roque’s House. From an experimental unit of 34 beds in 1923 it grew to 120 beds by 1930.

The hospital had pavilions with verandahs so patients could remain in the open air in all states of the weather.

And the grounds were laid out by the Royal Botanic Garden, with exotic seeds and plants, and a vegetable garden.

After the Second World War, a school was built in the grounds and the Charles Bell pavilion for children.

Older people were cared for with the Balfour Pavilion, and the Smart Centre, for mobility and rehabilitation technology, opened in 2007.

As well as the listed buildings which would have to be retained, the site has more than 1,500 trees, many 150-180 years old and including a wide variety of species.

Me McGhee said: “Since 18th century the landscape has been subject to parkland planting, with many new species coming into Scotland in the mid-1800s, such as monkey puzzle, giant sequoia, giant redwood and some cedars.

“The owners at the time were interested in the trees coming into Scotland. We were fortunate there were lots of tree nurseries all around Edinburgh and owners were persuaded to try these new trees.”

Edinburgh Southern Labour MSP Daniel Johnson praised the community initiative.

He said: “The sale of the Astley Ainslie site is going to have a big impact on the community in South Edinburgh. It’s important to make sure we have as much community input and community control over its future as we possibly can.

“That’s why I think this community buy-out initiative has so much merit. I look forward to working with the community bid to help develop the proposals.”

And Lothian Tory MSP Miles Briggs welcomed the trust’s consultation.

He said it was a prime land and there would be no lack of interest in the site.

“It has been controversial in the past when the health board has sold off land without looking at local feeling, as we saw at Carighouse so it is good that community needs are being taken into account.”

He said hall space was one of the issues people had raised with him in the past. “Local cubs and scouts have said how difficult it is to find available space.”