John McLellan: City planning done by accident?

An artist's impression of the proposed St James development. Picture: Redwood Consulting
An artist's impression of the proposed St James development. Picture: Redwood Consulting
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So The Mole Who Knew it Was None of His Business will be immortalised in the Edinburgh skyline after the controversial St James Quarter hotel design narrowly won permission from city councillors this week.

With a 7:5 margin it was a close-run thing, although insiders were confident before the vote the plans would win approval.

As it turned out, Wednesday’s debate was less about the “ribbon” concept and more about the width of the tower at the top floors. In fact, support for the general design was pretty much unanimous, with little concern about creating something akin to a giant monument for toilet roll. St Andrex Square anyone?

But beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that, it is neither here nor there whether I like the design or not and given that even Adam Wilkinson of the World Heritage Site was broadly in favour maybe I’m just plain wrong. Fair enough.

In a discussion lasting over three hours, the greatest difficulty was over the change of use for the top floors from exclusive accommodation suites into a 500-cover restaurant and viewing platform.

The alteration meant more space was needed at the top and if anything, as the design team argued, this was a positive move which would open up the best bits of the building from a few wealthy guests to the wider 
Edinburgh public. It wouldn’t be a planning meeting without the usual anti-commerce grandstanding from Green Nigel Bagshaw, but in the absence of Tory Joanna Mowat and Labour’s Eric Milligan we were denied the Festival-esque fun of the customary head-to-head between the forces of conservatism and the March of Progress.

Agree or disagree with the decision, and on balance the result was probably correct, the way in which the whole St James Quarter project has been given the go-ahead has exposed serious problems with the way the future of Edinburgh is being mapped out. This is the city’s biggest development for more than a generation and that a monstrous eyesore is finally to be swept away should be the cause for celebration. But from a civic point of view this has happened almost by accident without leadership or direction and in the absence of any real vision about where the city is heading.

In recent weeks two key decisions have been taken about this scheme, firstly about the use of limestone as the main exterior material and now the detail of the hotel design. The rejection of either threatened to derail the project.

Yet even after detailed discussions lasting months, the city’s planning officers recommended refusal and on both occasions they were backed by planning committee convener Ian Perry. But councillors chose to ignore the advice and so a scheme of such scale and importance has won approval against the wishes of both the city’s professional advisers and the elected representative appointed to lead scrutiny.

On the broader leadership front, city council leader Andrew Burns has had little to say on the subject publicly while the new chief Andrew Kerr has hardly had time to get the family photos positioned on his desk.

So on the face of it we have the extraordinary situation where the most important development in living memory has been steered through by the developers making their own arguments and winning support in the face of at best a vacuum and at worst outright opposition.

This week the driving seats were occupied by SNP leader Sandy Howat and his Conservative counterpart Cameron Rose. Both understood the need for the planning committee to take responsibility and to make a decision, while beleaguered convener Ian Perry tried to buy time with a delay for further discussion, as he had done over the limestone issue.

Perry wanted more time to find out the view of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), a body which feeds into Unesco’s World Heritage Site process. Perry argued passionately, as emotional as I’ve seen him, that without consulting ICOMOS the committee would be taking a decision without being in full possession of the facts.

But this was a skilful curve-ball worthy of the World Series thrown by Adam Wilkinson at the last minute. The views of ICOMOS should have been taken into account in the consultation process, given the ICOMOS UK vice president is none other than Edinburgh-based conservation architect James Simpson, who has been involved with projects like Craighouse. If Wilkinson wasn’t aware of ICOMOS’s likely position it would be very surprising and the committee rightly decided no delay was necessary.

In desperation, Perry said there was a danger the city was being planned application by application and while he wasn’t wrong, he has to ask how this has come about.

The planning department finds itself increasingly discredited, with significant recommendations ignored or overturned on appeal, or decisions taken out of its hands altogether. The Scottish Government called in housing schemes at Cammo and Gilmerton, partly for political reasons but also because of delays, while government reporters have also reversed rejections of other sensitive developments.

Look at the recent record. Lutton Place student flats, St Leonard’s student flats, 650 houses at Gilmerton and 173 houses at Edmonstone; all were refused by the council after following officers’ advice and each decision was overturned on appeal.

Even when the correct decisions have been reached over schemes like Craighouse and Caltongate, the processes have done little to build public confidence in the way the city handles big decisions.

And against this background, what confidence can members of the public applying for planning permission have in what officers say when both the Scottish Government and local councillors are regularly ignoring them? Why should you listen to what a planning officer tells you about your wee porch extension when politicians shun the big recommendations?

Although plenty people will disagree, in broad terms the city’s direction is correct but it’s becoming more by accident than design and is taking far longer than is healthy for competitiveness or reputation.

The message seems to be: yes, Edinburgh is open for business but it’ll take a week or so till we get someone to come and lift the shutters. That needs to change.

Winning bid could boost university links

Edinburgh and the neighbouring councils are gearing up for their bid to win a £1bn City Region Deal from the UK government, a status designed to unlock investment coffers to improve the region’s infrastructure and so boost economic growth.

It will be essential if Edinburgh is to compete with the likes of Manchester and Leeds, places which will not let the grass grow beneath them as they seek to wrest business from continental competitors.

The next step is a gathering on Monday of over 100 business figures at the EICC to explain the bid and reveal the vision of an economic future based on three pillars of knowledge, culture and technology.

Knowledge leans heavily on the region’s universities, culture on the festivals and technology on so-called “incubators” like the Codebase hub for small but sophisticated enterprises.

As far as Edinburgh is concerned, the universities lie at the heart of all three, more specifically Edinburgh University. Take Edinburgh University out of the equation and there is obviously a huge hole in the knowledge sector, a vastly reduced number of Fringe venues and no infomatics research base.

So this is not just a question of selling the vision for Edinburgh, but exploring the future of higher education and all the ways in which it influences life in this area.

That’s going to require a new approach from the university as well as the city and, to borrow a technological phrase, a re-booting of the city’s relationship with the university sector.

The ultimate aim is not growth for its own sake but to help tackle social problems across the region, a message which often fails to reach those who need to hear it. I hope Monday is the start of something genuinely new.