It was a tough gig. Last week, at a public meeting in Leith Theatre, facing 200 local residents, Fife Hyland from Drum Property Group explained his company’s latest proposals to demolish the sandstone parade at the foot of Leith Walk and develop new retail facilities, student accommodation and an “exciting” new hotel.
The audience was not impressed. Across the city and beyond, growing numbers of people are frustrated with the planning system and levels of trust in planning are at rock bottom.
Tonight there is yet another public meeting to discuss the ongoing controversy over the India Buildings site where Richard Branson intends to build a “luxury” hotel.
Realistically, the city council will probably approve the Leith Walk plans since they are in broad alignment with a development brief approved by the council in 2008. If they refuse the application, it will probably be appealed to Scottish Ministers.
Stead’s Place illustrates much that is wrong with planning. This one application will be determined in isolation. No other options are on the table and, because the applicant wants a financial return that reflects the £4.25 million that it paid for the three-acre site, the options for other approaches are limited. There is nothing to stop folk in Leith submitting an alternative application that does not involve demolishing the parade but, understandably, they haven’t done so due to the costs and complexity in doing so.
This afternoon, the Scottish Parliament will be debating the Planning Bill. This is a mediocre piece of legislation but it offers an opportunity to reform the planning system to put power back in the hands of communities. Scottish Greens will be tabling amendments that abolish the applicant’s right of appeal in order to strengthen the hand of the council in negotiating better outcomes.
We will be proposing that local authorities can acquire land at its existing use value so as to allow public-led development with the community in the driving seat, designing a place that works for them and provides genuine affordable housing and business space.
Ultimately, communities need to own more land in order to exercise full control over their environment. The interests of speculative developers and private landowners have been given too much weight for too long. Parliament needs to legislate to put power back into the hands of the community to design, plan and develop places for people and communities rather than for private profit.
Andy Wightman is a Green MSP for Lothian.