John McLellan: Best price is priority in property

Alison Elliot's group takes heed of Craighouse issues. Picture: PHIL WILKINSON
Alison Elliot's group takes heed of Craighouse issues. Picture: PHIL WILKINSON
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You won’t have seen queues at bookshops and post offices for copies of Land of Scotland and the Common Good published this week, but for city dwellers it’s a pretty radical document.

It is the findings of the Land Reform Review Group set up two years ago by the Scottish Government under psychologist and churchwoman Alison Elliot, a former Church of Scotland moderator, to enable “more people in rural and urban Scotland to have a stake in the ownership, governance, management and use of land”.

At its heart lies a desire to give people more control over the world around them. Which in a motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of way is all well and good, but even though thousands of words have been used to express the group’s desire, exactly how this would work in practice is unclear.

It does, however, attempt to establish in principle the kind of things community activists have been arguing over, issues like the development of Craighouse Hill, Caltongate and to a lesser extent Portobello Park.

Underpinning the whole thing is the principle, however difficult as it is to define, of common good and the public interest. Again, it sounds fine if you say it quickly but understanding precisely what it means is far from easy and applying a definition will change from case to case.

Take the subject of last week’s feature, Craighouse, for example. Those opposed to the development argue it is in the public interest to keep the site as it is, not cut down any trees and put the existing buildings to community use. But there is another public interest, that of taxpayers who foot the bill for Napier University which owned the site and struck a commercial deal with property 
developers so they could maximise their return and help pay for their new campus at Sighthill.

It was certainly in the public interest for the university to rid itself of a disused Victorian hospital. Then there is the public interest of Edinburgh council, which must balance the needs of the city and the interests of all citizens with the demands of some, but not all, local people. Throw in the interests of politicians with an eye for populist opportunity, and identifying what is genuinely in the public interest becomes difficult to pin down.

Effectively it comes back full circle; it depends what you believe.

Up at Craighouse, the Friends of the Woods are still arguing they have a viable alternative plan to the redevelopment proposed by the Craighouse Partnership, now in its third incarnation.
Writing in the Evening News this week, protest leader Rosy Barnes repeated the claim that investors are waiting in the wings to fund a scheme planned in conjunction with “successful local business people” which involves a hotel, flats, some sort of arts facility, and niche business and community use.

The idea was first raised a year ago but no detail has ever been revealed. And as one of the main accusations by protestors against the partnership is that its cash comes from opaque offshore funds, it’s ironic that the identity of any investors behind the initiative remains a mystery.

Then there is the plan itself. Who will legally own the site? Who will manage it? Which hotel operators are interested, given chunks of the site are going to be handed over to other uses? What is the traffic impact of deliveries to a hotel and businesses? What are the costs of conversion to multiple use? How viable would the businesses be, given the shops across the road on Morningside Gardens have long since been turned into flats? Doubtless the Friends of Craighouse Woods will regard all these questions as negativity but they all need to be answered before anything resembling a proper community action plan can be considered. If they’ve got the answers, they’ve not told anyone else; and any politician worth his or her salt would want those questions answered before getting behind such a scheme.

On the other hand, the developers have a fully-costed scheme which is there to be picked apart, which is as it should be. Proper scrutiny is essential and this process has brought about welcome revisions which preserve the vast majority of the existing open space.

The Land Reform Group proposes a way forward for groups like the Friends of the Woods, to give urban community groups the power to become a preferred bidder when land becomes available, as they can do in rural areas.

Rural communities have been able to secure first refusal on land since the Land Reform Acts of 2003-4, but it has rarely been used either because of lack of interest or lack of cash.

The problem is that being given first refusal, as presumably the Friends of Craighouse Wood would have liked when Napier University decided to sell up, is not the same as allowing a few activists to grab property at knockdown prices. The owner retains the right to receive a proper market rate and public bodies must still, rightly, secure best value on behalf of taxpayers. You can forget Edinburgh council weighing in with compulsory purchase orders just to hand sites over for schemes which would need more detail to fill the back of a fag packet.

Community groups might get power, but it will mean nothing without professional plans and hard cash.

Clearly, what is wanted on Craighouse is for Edinburgh council to declare any construction on such sites off limits and therefore smash the commercial value to such an extent that they suddenly become affordable. That, to use a woodland cliché, is cloud cuckoo land; the council will not put the future of a Grade A listed building at risk on the basis of what, on current evidence, is nothing more than a dream.

What really smashes land value is smashed markets. That’s why the city council has been able to procure the Canal site for the new Boroughmuir High School because the banking and property crash made the site available.

Before 2008 it looked as if Boroughmuir would be moving to Fairmilehead because the other preferred site at the Astley Ainslie Hospital was also out of the city’s price range as NHS Lothian was legally-bound to seek best value. In The Grange that meant houses.

And as it stands, the market for flats and houses is getting healthier, so the price of prising Craighouse from the Partnership would be based on what it thinks would be a reasonable return, not what activists think it is worth. If they were prepared to sell, which they’re not.

It’s forward motion, but it’s slow

THERE has been an assault allegation against an official, residents are complaining that platform announcements are too noisy, there was a gripe about the poor air conditioning and a girl has bounced off one on Princes Street, unharmed.

No-one can say the start of the trams has been uneventful but despite all that it seems to have been a good first week.

More than 20,000 people turned up for the launch on Saturday, including the protestor who has reported an official to police for alleged rough treatment. On Tuesday, 10,000 One Direction fans took advantage of the new service to Murrayfield without a rammy.

Now some people are questioning whether the thousands who have used the service so far are just displaced bus users. I suspect quite a few are, but a high proportion will be folk going down to see what they got for £776 million.

Although Tuesday teatime rush-hour was a bad time to check it out, given it coincided with the Murrayfield concert crowd, it was nevertheless heartening to see the stop on Shandwick Place packed, so at the very least it appears to have made a significant contribution to getting large numbers of people to and from a major event at the stadium.

As for normal business, maybe we’ll get a better idea over the next fortnight or so before the tourist season really kicks in, otherwise an accurate measure of domestic use won’t be available until autumn.

It seems a spooky coincidence the TomTom congestion index which showed Edinburgh in a poor light was published the very week the line went live and it certainly served as a timely reminder as to why the tram project was deemed necessary.

It is a nasty surprise to learn Edinburgh is the third worst city for driving in the UK and it takes 60 per cent longer to drive anywhere in Edinburgh at peak times.

The only saving grace is that as the city is compact it will still represent a shorter time behind the wheel than in second-placed London; which is probably why so many of us are tempted to jump in the car.

Top spot Belfast has issues going back to the Troubles, when Republican districts were largely no-go areas for public transport and IRA-controlled black cabs met demand.

It’s difficult to see where the city goes with a congestion problem which is not going away, given intersections are already nose-to-nose for buses. The re-modelling of Waverley station provided for four more trains an hour, which allowed for the new services on the Airdrie-Bathgate line and will be taken up when the Borders line opens next year.

We might yet get the tram line extended to Leith but then what? With no cash from government or council, the chances of further tram services are remote at present.

More road space given over to bike lanes is in the pipeline, so don’t expect that TomTom index to shift any time soon.

Join debate on press regulation

If you don’t like what I’ve written, or indeed anything else in the Evening News or any other paper or magazine, you might be interested in hearing what the first chief of the new Press Regulator, Sir Alan Moses, has to say at a special event at Napier University on June 23.

Of course you might also want to come along to hear about freedom of expression and how to protect it.

Sir Alan is one of the UK’s most distinguished and high-profile judges, presiding over the Soham murder trial for one, and it will be his first public appearance in his role as chairman of the new Independent Press Standards Organisation.

He’ll be taking part in a debate about the future of Press regulation in the UK and it is hoped a representative of the Hacked Off pressure group will also be speaking.

The event starts at 6.30 at the Craiglockhart Campus on Colinton Road and entry is free.