Independent body must probe Christmas market scaffolding in Princes Street Gardens – John McLellan

Edinburgh Council cannot allow even a suggestion that there is one law for itself and another for everyone else, writes John McLellan after it emerges scaffolding created for the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens was set up without planning permission.

By John McLellan
Thursday, 31st October 2019, 6:00 am
The contoversial Christmas Market scaffolding in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Ian Georgeson
The contoversial Christmas Market scaffolding in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Murrayfield with 4,000 spectators has so little atmosphere Nasa could use it to train astronauts so three years ago Edinburgh Rugby decided to move its home games to Myreside where two temporary stands would be erected at either end.

Planning permission was duly sought for the new accommodation, which was essentially scaffolding with wooden floors. After a few games, Scottish Rugby decided they would be better off erecting temporary constructions on the back pitches at HQ so a planning application was lodged for mini-Murrayfield.

Something odd happened with the second application because a crucial letter of objection was recorded as a letter of support and the application went through without any scrutiny from councillors and the Council’s director of place Paul Lawrence, whose remit covers planning, had to apologise for the oversight.

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There was never any doubt that even temporary arrangements made from scaffolding poles needed planning permission, yet this week it emerged that a vast scaffolding platform across Princes Street Gardens for Edinburgh’s Christmas market run by the independent company Underbelly was given the go-ahead, not just before a planning application had been approved but without one being made at all.

Underbelly argued that due to the National Galleries work in the Gardens, the new structure was needed to make the market viable and the expense covered by a two-year extension to its contract. Mr Lawrence told councillors this week he approved the deal in consultation with the convener and vice-convener of the culture and communities committee, Labour councillor Donald Wilson and the SNP’s Amy McNeese-Mechan, but an emergency motion to the committee’s June meeting made no reference to any construction or planning implications and neither did a subsequent report in September.

A massive Meccano set

Yet planning permission was discussed at a private meeting at the end of August at which Underbelly said it would could not make an application before work stated on October 18 because they needed an engineering report which we now learn wasn’t completed until October 12.

We are told decisions had to be taken quickly because of the tight timescale, but is this a luxury afforded to other applicants? As far as I am aware, not a pole was lifted at Myreside until after planning permission was granted. And every fortnight applications are turned down by the development management sub-committee on the basis of what applicants often feel are minor technicalities.

Mr Lawrence says a planning application is now expected, but would that have happened had the matter not been raised publicly? A report has been ordered after an emergency motion by Conservative councillor Jo Mowat – with a lot more detail than the administration motion in June – and enforcement monitoring is now being conducted by planning officers.

And while planning permission and the building warrants are one thing, what about the security arrangements for the vast covered metal maze beneath the market? So many unanswered questions.

Without making any judgment on the events, the problem the council faces in getting to the bottom of the issue is that the department charged with producing the report is answerable to Mr Lawrence, who by his own admission played a pivotal role in the decision. The officers are in effect being asked to report on the actions of their boss.

Such is the level of concern that an iconic and sensitive site like Princes Street Gardens can be turned into a massive Meccano set without proper permissions in place, it may be necessary, and indeed better for all concerned, if a further report is produced by officers unconnected to Edinburgh Council, a trusted organisation like Audit Scotland with a proven track record of independence.

The council cannot allow even a suggestion that there is one law for itself and another for everyone else and an external investigation is a good way of showing there is nothing to hide.