The danger Edinburgh council poses to economic growth – John McLellan

All change. After two years of muddling along, Edinburgh’s SNP-Labour administration has realised there is more to managing a capital city than soundbites, social media and photocalls and is having another go at shaping the way the council works.

Thursday, 9th May 2019, 7:00 am
Planning problems can cost developers huge amounts of money

The unloved locality committees have been put out of their misery and now the dysfunctional housing and economy committee is to be broken up and the equally problematic planning committee is set to be split in two.

Housing was merged with economy because supplying houses was regarded as the most important contribution the city could make to the local economy, but it has been apparent for some time it was an economy committee in name only and council leader Adam McVey is expected to take direct responsibility while housing will stand alone.

Last week the Evening News got wind of a rumour that Edinburgh’s planning convener, Neil Gardiner, was about to be reshuffled from the city’s development management sub-committee which processes planning applications.

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“Cllr Gardiner has frustrated some opposition councillors during committees,” I read with a chuckle, given I’m one of the opposition councillors on the committee.

I laughed because the administration really doesn’t give a stuff what I or any opposition councillors think, and in their position neither would we, but they do listen to senior officers who are increasingly worried that planning meetings have become so unpredictable there is a growing risk of legal action.

There are two changes on the horizon which will also have an impact on how planning applications are handled: the heavily-amended Planning Bill currently going through the Scottish Parliament could increase the opportunity for legal challenges, but the council is also introducing a new system to charge applicants for planning advice. While there will be no link between the advice given and the eventual recommendations, or a guarantee of success, nevertheless the system will be discredited from the start if paid-for advice is regularly widely at odds with outcomes.

Even now, some applicants are unhappy with the way business is conducted and are resigned to appealing directly to the Scottish Government. A qualified architect, Cllr Gardiner is regularly accused of going beyond the planning remit and into subjective opinions on design, while the committee vice-convener, Labour’s highly-experienced Maureen Child, does not sit at the top table and so distances herself from the way meetings are managed.

With some deals worth millions of pounds developers have a very clear interest in the way their projects are handled; problems can cost them huge amounts of money which can then result in expensive legal action if the process is not seen to be legally fair.

The answer is said to be dividing the political planning committee from the non-political development management, and although the decision hasn’t been taken the plan is to leave Cllr Gardiner to run the former while the latter is handled by the affable and experienced Rob Munn, newly re-elected in Leith Walk.

Politics can’t ever be entirely removed from the process and there are councillors who are intuitively more suspicious of developments than others, which is their prerogative, but it’s not supposed to be part of the application process.

Some regard economic growth not as a boon but a threat, and with this week’s UN biodiversity report rejecting the “limited paradigm of economic growth” there will be a lot more suspicion in the months and years to come.

The SNP-Labour administration will argue they already have this covered because their economy strategy focuses on “good growth” without specifying what “bad growth” it might face, but growth of any kind can only be hampered by a difficult planning regime and the new Planning Bill will not make life easier.

The administration claims the glory for Edinburgh’s high employment and relative prosperity, but while the council can’t generate growth on its own it can certainly grind it to a halt.