Brian Monteith: Why I smell a rat about St James development

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I would so like to think that the council has done the right thing with the St James Quarter development. Sadly, after years of seeing it stuff up – no matter who’s in control – I think I and the others that are flagging their doubts have a right to be sceptical.

Of course we all want as good a development of high quality as possible. Of course we want something we can all be proud of and will make a bee-line to go to – but when a council appears to become more than just the umpire in consenting to the planning application and becomes a player in the scheme, there’s a real risk of a conflict of interest that spells danger.

It spells danger because the very standards we want to see enshrined could be compromised. It rings warning bells because it can give the council a commercial interest in suppressing other worthwhile developments because it now has a vested interest to protect.

So there’s to be a boutique theatre/cinema in the St James Quarter development – fair enough, personally I’m fine with that. But wait, is this not the same council that has baulked at other applications for cinema developments in the past, even in places where they have existed before?

Is that a rotten cheese I smell in the larder.

And what if another developer comes along with an application for a top of the range hotel? What kind of treatment can it expect if there’s going to be a top of the range hotel in the St James’s Quarter?

My point is simple, it is not for the council to determine what the market can bear – it is bound to get that calculation wrong for it’s a matter of judgment influenced by the actions and interactions of people whose behaviour it cannot begin to know or understand.

That’s why such risks are best left to private capital that is willing to take a gamble – with its own money, not ours.

That’s why councils (and governments) are best kept out of commercial activities; they have a history of blowing the lot, and providing £61 million to help an £850m project that is expected to return a profit of £130m appears rash.

That’s not to say the council would not have to make some financial commitment to various infrastructure commitments – but £61m?

It is argued that the government is able to recover what it is calling a “loan” through higher business rates. Hmmn, I’d rather we didn’t put the money up at all and offered to cut business rates instead. That seems less riskier and able to generate a possibly better return – for it could also attract further investment using such a model.

So, yes, redeveloping the St James Quarter – to give it its new posh name – has to be a good thing. The abomination that was put there in the Seventies has been an open architectural sore from day one. I would rather we had kept the old Leith Street and St James’s Square, but we are where we are and the Bandparts and Waverley Tailoring I used to frequent have gone forever.

I do wish the scheme every success – but the lack of opportunity for opposition councillors to scrutinise the deal looks like share practice and I cannot help but think that if such devious means were needed to get the project’s approval rushed through then there’s something not quite right about it.

There was a time when councillors were personally liable for financial decisions that went sour. Maybe the only way to get them to act openly and accountably is to bring that rule back.

Admit gaffe, Alex

SO Alex Salmond admires certain qualities of President Putin?

When pressed about what it is that he admires, he referred to the pride he generated from the nationalism surrounding the Sochi Olympic Games.

Why do I find this hard to believe? Simple. I don’t recall Alex Salmond saying any such thing about Sebastian Coe, Boris Johnson or David Cameron in regard to the UK’s London Olympics. What looks more likely is that the First Minister has made a gaffe and is busy back peddling, looking for a way to justify his comment.

It’s a lame explanation and of course could just as easily be applied to Hitler and the Berlin Olympics of 1936, which is why it’s such a poor excuse. While Putin certainly puts his country’s interests first, he also appears to put Putin first and the interests of many others last. The human rights record of Putin is not just poor, but has gotten worse. His new laws against the homosexual community being just one of many examples.

I am reminded that when Nigel Farage said on radio that he admired how Vladimir Putin had outwitted the West diplomatically – meaning exposing Obama and the European Union’s continued threats over issues such as Syria to be just empty rhetoric that have only made matters worse – that he came in for a storm of abuse. Alex Salmond should expect nothing less for an even more crass statement following what has happened in the Ukraine.

And there was me thinking Salmond supported small nations against big ones.