John McLellan: Emotions run high over Craighouse

Protestors  leave the City Chambers having seen the plans for the development of Craighouse passed by city councillors. Picture: Neil Hanna
Protestors leave the City Chambers having seen the plans for the development of Craighouse passed by city councillors. Picture: Neil Hanna
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After a day of relentless and outspoken attacks on one of Edinburgh’s most bitterly contested development plans, it seemed the controversial Craighouse scheme would surely be thrown out.

But by the end of a long and often passionate day of debate, the rapturous applause from protesters apparently on the march to victory was replaced by bitterness and chants of “shame” as members of the development committee voted it through. The protesters’ anger is not likely to disappear soon.

Ovations had rung around the main council chamber on Wednesday morning, as speaker after speaker denounced the proposal by Sundial Properties to build new houses on the hill alongside the Victorian mental hospital, briefly an unhappy HQ for Napier University.

Sundial have argued the new properties are necessary to make the urgently needed renovation of the historic buildings financially viable, and in a report of over 200 pages, council planning officials had come to the same conclusion.

Not so, said opponents who have long claimed it was perfectly feasible to convert the old buildings to a variety of uses without the need for any new buildings at all.

The loudest and longest 
reception was reserved for the doughty Rosy Barnes, leader of the Friends of Craighouse, who was nearly in tears at the end of her 15-minute presentation.

Apart from the developer himself, the lone public presentation in favour was from Betty Barber of the Craiglea Proprietors’ Association, representing the residents of the sheltered housing scheme whom, she said, were concerned for their security the longer the site went undeveloped.

By contrast, her evidence was received with stony silence, with the exception of a woman in the upper public gallery who hissed: “I just want to go down there and strangle her”. Nice, coming from one of those people who spent the day arguing about democracy.

In what was one of the few sour moments in a day when passions were running high, she was subjected to what Councillor Keith Robson described as a “disrespectful” line of attack from the deputy convener Sandy Howat.

Poor Mrs Barber must have thought she was on trial for having the temerity to stand outside the consensus. Politicians might be used to a bit of argy-bargy but people managing old folks’ homes not so much.

Rosy Barnes and her partner Andrew Richards were allowed to outline their vision for an alternative community scheme, which was pretty generous given they didn’t have a plan, never mind a planning application.

And so the morning was virtually one-way traffic.

Marion Williams of the Cockburn Association: “After Caltongate, the Green Belt and South St Andrew Square, if Craighouse goes it continues the assault on our beautiful, fantastic city.”

Euan Leitch of the Architectural Heritage Society: “The officials’ report uses the word detrimental 51 times so it is taken as read that [the proposals] are.”

Alison Johnstone, Greens MSP: “Not one constituent has contacted me to express a positive view.”

Possibly the most telling contribution was from Labour MP Ian Murray, fresh from the triumph of saving Hearts. He said: “It is the most damning report I’ve seen with the word ‘granted’ at the end of it.

“Confidence in the planning system is up for grabs and people could 
lose trust in democracy if this is approved.”

To their voices were added council leader and local councillor Andrew Burns, so with over 1000 registered objections and the three community councils behind them, by the lunch break the antis would have been forgiven for thinking it was almost in the bag.

Certainly the Sundial team led by businessman Willie Gray Muir looked worried and quickly scuttled off down the High Street for an urgent pow-wow.

After lunch, Willie Gray Muir got his chance. It was costing his company £250,000 a year just to maintain the site, he said, while other historic hospital buildings like Bangour were crumbling because of the huge difficulties in finding sustainable uses.

Far from being a thrown-together scheme, he argued, it was the 48th attempt at producing an acceptable proposal after four years of 
consultation involving 180 private meetings and 13 public meetings, and the case had been examined by independent experts.

It would, he said, expand the green spaces, put more parkland into public ownership, guarantee public access, plant 70 new trees and they would put over £300,000 into South Morningside Primary School.

In the end it came down to a matter of trust, and while those councillors against the plan clearly didn’t trust Willie Gray Muir, more tellingly it was obvious they didn’t trust their own officers’ work.

Councillor Howat demanded to know how they could be certain this was the only viable scheme if there had been 48 other passes.

Morningside Tory Mark McInnes echoed many views that the official report’s recommendation was at odds with guidance breaches and negative adjectives.

The Greens’ Gavin Corbett scored a big hit with the crowd by saying it was not their job to bail out what he described as a reckless business decision. After all this, the real debate among the committee members in whose hands the decision lay had yet to begin. And it was gone 5pm.

The tone changed very quickly. Convener Ian Perry has never been someone to be pushed around or play populist cards and he was quick to praise the scheme, the work of council officers but, crucially, Historic 
Scotland’s backing. In the opposite corner was his deputy Sandy Mowat who, to applause almost as loud as that for Rosy Barnes, slammed the plan as vandalism and said: “This would mean our planning system is for sale.

“Our seven hills are for sale because we want to give developers a 20 per cent profit.

“Our principles are for sale for rich people’s houses.”

Despite Mark McInnes’s opposition, his Conservative colleagues Joanna Mowatt and Cameron Rose rode to the rescue. “We don’t want another Odeon,” said Councillor Rose.

But with Labour’s Maureen Child and Keith Robson wavering, the most telling intervention was from the old warhorse Eric Milligan.

If there was quiet for most of the other speakers, there was a definite hush as Milligan revved up.

“We all know there is considerable opposition,” he said. “But the easy thing to do is to be popular. All we have to do is to play to the gallery and allow ourselves to be cajoled by local concerns.

“We must listen carefully to planning advisers and to reject them we need good reason for doing so.

“This is a wonderful part of Edinburgh which is falling into a sad state of disrepair and these plans have had as fine a tooth comb as any other project I’ve been involved with. It is the right thing to do.”

If his Labour colleagues needed persuading, that sealed it and at 6pm on the dot the vote in favour was carried by nine votes to six.

There were howls from the public seats and a bewildered Andrew Richards could only circle round like a concussed rugby forward shouting “There’s no maintenance plan.”

Rosy Barnes sat slowly shaking her head like someone who’d just been told of bereavement. For her it probably was.

What happens now? Willie Gray Muir said work would start immediately and for the sake of the already rotting buildings he needs to be as good as his word.

And for the councillors, I suspect some of those who spoke against already knew it would go through anyway.

For them it really is a win-win.

Only huge u-turn will halt development

Friends of Craighouse have vowed to fight the council’s decision but as there is no third party right of appeal this will be difficult.

The only way the development can be halted is if the Scottish Government steps in to prevent work, as it did in the case of the Odeon.

To do this, an MSP must first persuade the Government agency responsible that the plan is not in the public interest and it must then make a recommendation to ministers, in this case either Derek MacKay, as planning minister, or Nicola Sturgeon, wearing her cities hat. They then take a decision whether or not to “call in” the development.

The agency responsible is Historic Scotland, which had this to say about the Craighouse plan in its official report: “The proposed refurbishment works for the listed buildings are sensitive, responsive and should secure the preservation of the special interest and value of the buildings. The proposed new development by way of their design, scale and location effect an acceptable level of change to the site without eroding its key characteristics, experience and understanding. From a Historic Environment perspective the open parkland character of the site is retained, the hierarchy and relationship of the listed buildings maintained, and its uncertain future averted.”

So for Historic Scotland to ask ministers to block the development will take a U-Turn of super-tanker proportions, although if there are votes in it politicians might be quick to pile in.

In the case of the Odeon, both Labour’s Sheila Gilmore and the SNP’s Shirley-Anne Somerville weighed in with locals who wanted the cinema returned to its “glory days”, but presumably not to watch Charlie Chaplin films. So four years ago the redevelopment plans were duly called in. It is still derelict.