Edinburgh Council keeps fighting developers who can build the houses the city needs – John McLellan
Edinburgh is fortunate in that many of its communities offer just that, with so many workplaces close to densely populated districts. Think of all the lawyers and financiers living in the New Town or university types living in Marchmont and Newington.
As traditional manufacturing vanished, the character of the neighbourhoods which housed the labour inevitably changed; Leith and heavy industry, Fountainbridge and brewing to name but two.
The Scottish Government and Edinburgh Council support the new principle of the so-called “20-minute neighbourhood”, except it’s not very new at all and only the expansion of car ownership in the past 40 years has allowed people to live further away from where they work and shop. Building homes next to big employers is not innovative but a return to principles established out of necessity throughout the 19th century.
The emerging Edinburgh Park district, combining homes with shops, leisure facilities, open spaces as well as offices, is regarded as a case study in good development and will no doubt evolve further as new post-Covid working patterns emerge. The same approach is being taken by the Council at Granton and the plans for the various sites around the airport combine workplaces and homes.
But the Bioquarter at Little France grew out of the relocation of the Royal Infirmary and was not accompanied by a housing masterplan, so development of the wider area has been more haphazard and various schemes have run into difficulties.
The latest is a plan for 200 homes on land owned by the developer Springfield Properties, this week rejected by the Scottish Government because it contravenes the Council’s green-belt policies. The ruling is justifiable because it simply upholds the current legal designation, but that doesn’t mean it makes sense.
The expanded Royal Infirmary and Edinburgh University complex dwarf the original development and the whole Bioquarter is expected to play a major role in Edinburgh’s economic future. Even in the post-pandemic world, hundreds, if not thousands, of people will be working there and the need for adjacent housing has been clear for years because of the distances staff have to travel from homes they can afford.
Perhaps recognising the demand, the Council proposed housing on nearby open space it owns at Moredun but had to re-think because of opposition from local people. But where is the consistency in blocking housing on one open space, but promoting it on another a few hundred yards away?
In a city which needs to find land for about 25,000 new houses to meet even the most modest forecast of population growth and tackle high housing costs by addressing demand, it remains hard to understand why the Council consistently finds itself at loggerheads with so many private developers when it desperately needs their assistance.
In this case, strict application of policy effectively blights unused land when it could be providing much-needed housing right next door to a major infrastructure and economic development site, and to where the council still has a long-term ambition to run a tram line.
Maybe the problem is that it wasn’t the Council’s plan, but no wonder Springfield Properties’ chief executive Innes Smith was dismayed.