Deidre Brock: Public spaces sacrificed on the altar of development

As the current planning system stands, land is used in a way that maximises density and maximises profits for developers
As the current planning system stands, land is used in a way that maximises density and maximises profits for developers
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Houses! Flats! Development! Build, build, build! What does anyone need with open spaces, greenery, playparks or suchlike? Pave it over!

From the development at Canonmills Bridge to the houses to be built down by Ocean Terminal, it seems that no open space – or open sky – can be allowed to remain. Not only must it be built on but it must be built high. Flats, towering, lowering, domineering flats. Never just three or four storeys but six or seven at a minimum and every inch of land used to get maximum density and maximum developer profits.

At the time of writing there is a planning application in for a huge development of flats in an area bounded by Commercial Street, Sandport Street and Dock Street. It’ll take away warehouses and industrial units but also a playpark owned by the council and just about the only green space in the area. Over in Salamander Place there’s a planning application in for another enormous development, mainly where things have been demolished, but it also takes in allotments and a bowling green owned by the council. That development would sit right on Leith Links and would see giant flats towering over a nursery and primary school.

We should continue to develop Edinburgh, build on those brownfield sites, make good, comfortable homes that people will enjoy living in, but our public spaces – including the streetscapes – are being lost. It’s time for a bit of change to give us a better planning system. Some councillors and council officers will think that’s a call for a revolution and will be having fits of the vapours but we need change.

Firstly, we need homes for people – places where children can grow up and families can live in some contentment; houses as well as flats. We need affordable housing for folk to rent and affordable housing for people to buy – and they need to be spaced out a bit. Communities need open spaces, too; places for children to run around, places for adults to relax, somewhere to kick a ball about or walk a dog. What the council will accept in a planning application needs to change to reflect that. We need less of the pile it high, sell it really expensive that we’ve seen in recent years and a lot more quality housing and real spaces for people.

When I was a councillor I served on the planning committee and we let some horrors through. We tried to improve things, we tried to force some aesthetic considerations in and we had some success but nowhere near enough. We’ve got to do better and we need change. Planning committees all over the country sit as quasi-judicial bodies; they’re courts where the judges are councillors – advised by qualified council officials but it’s still councillors sitting as judges and expected to forget about politics while they’re doing it. Planning decisions are supposed to ignore politics and all political consideration and be taken in a considered manner.

It’s havers. Councillors treat the job seriously and do a decent job, by and large, but they’re stuck in a framework that doesn’t allow them much discretion and doesn’t give them the tools they need to improve the area.

Why should a planning decision not have politics in it? Politics is where the people come into decisions, and these are decisions about what should be built in our neighbourhoods; it affects people’s standard of living. Why should you not be able to object on the grounds that the building just doesn’t fit in (if you live in a conservation area you can, of course) or that the local amenities aren’t up to it?

Why can’t we simply be able to say that a large chunk of the neighbouring population simply don’t like the proposal? It’s their area, after all. Why can’t we place so much power in the hands of local communities that developers will have to really consult them – and listen to what they say?

It’s time for a change to the planning laws, it’s time to put the power in the hands of the people and to make every developer think and think again about what they’re proposing. I think that will drive standards up and I think it will give people the power to make sure that what gets built in their communities is worth the effort.

Deidre Brock is SNP MP for Edinbugh North and Leith