Comedy council planning decisions are no laughing matter - John McLellan

If it wasn’t so serious, there was comedy gold aplenty at last week’s development management committee, the fine group of councillors who decide what gets built in Edinburgh, and of which I was once a member.
The 525 Ferry Road development would involve six blocks with a total of 256 flats.The 525 Ferry Road development would involve six blocks with a total of 256 flats.
The 525 Ferry Road development would involve six blocks with a total of 256 flats.

​That an important decision to grant planning permission for a development of 256 badly needed flats was decided on the toss of a coin was bad enough, but if a failed bid to throw it out was hard to fathom, a decision to saddle the developer with £2m extra costs, which the council’s own officers said wasn’t necessary, beggared belief.

The desperate shortage of housing isn’t an excuse for builders to throw up any old crap, but this plan was anything but, and the admittedly large-scale proposal for the old State Street premises on Ferry Road is the reality of trying to meet targets when land supply is short.

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On the site of an ugly block opposite a factory, next to a hotel and seven-storey flats, on one of Edinburgh’s busiest roads is just the kind of place where tall, high density flat blocks can go.

But it wasn’t good enough for committee convener Hal Osler. That she is the local Lib Dem ward councillor and there were 82 objections I’m sure had nothing to do with it. But her gripes about height, impact on neighbours and chopping down some Leylandii were enough for serial refusenik, Green councillor Chas Booth, who leaves no planning application unscoured for reasons to reject.

Their bid to throw it out was rejected by the rest of the committee, but it was the imposition of a needless £2m levy to fund new classrooms at the Flora Stevenson primary school which really took the chocolate bourbon.

Last year was a stinker for housebuilders and judging by the last details filed with Companies House the firm behind this scheme, Artisan Real Estates, isn’t awash with cash, despite a high profile. So, £2m is a big hit to take.

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In the report to the committee, officers pointed out such a payment would be appropriate if a school annexe was to be built to cope with extra children, but an annexe is reliant on factors beyond the council’s control, including other developments in the area, and there are currently no plans, resources or land to build one.

“It is, therefore, considered that a contribution to the delivery of primary school infrastructure is not required to make this development acceptable,” said the report. But for reasons best known to himself, SNP councillor Neil Gardiner claimed this was a recommendation and moved for it to be imposed.

Enough councillors backed him to tie the vote for and against the charge, and as the convener Cllr Osler abstained rather than use her casting vote, they won on a coin toss.

Yes, readers, a developer faces a £2m fee ─ on top of £1m it will pay for extra secondary school capacity ─ for trying to build much-needed homes based on a misreading of a report and an officer flipping a coin.

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The scheme’s viability is now in doubt, and it sends a dreadful signal to builders expected to provide the homes of which Edinburgh is so short.

With this Blind Man’s Bluff and rent controls, no wonder student flats are a better option.

The councillors responsible really are having a laugh.

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