John McLellan: Make most of Leith Docks

Charles Hammond has experienced resistance from the city council with regards to best use of docklands. Picture: Jayne Wright
Charles Hammond has experienced resistance from the city council with regards to best use of docklands. Picture: Jayne Wright
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When Scotland hockey star Emily Maguire moves into her room at the Commonwealth Games athletes’ village, she might find the surroundings somewhat familiar. Well, the furniture at least.

The fittings were last in use in the Olympic village for London 2012, where Maguire was part of the Bronze medal-winning GB squad, and they have been brought out of mothballs for the Glasgow games.

But there has been no convoy of Pickfords vehicles from Stratford to Dalmarnock in recent weeks.

Once the London village was stripped down, the furniture was packed away in warehouses at Tilbury Docks and nine months ago the containers were shipped to Grangemouth where all the beds, tables and chairs remained in storage before the short hop down the motorway to Clydeside.

So what’s all this got to do with Edinburgh? The simple answer is that both Tilbury and Grangemouth are owned and operated by Forth Ports and so the Edinburgh firm played a key role in making sure the Commonwealth Games village was equipped as efficiently as possible.

At the helm of Forth Ports is Charles Hammond, the chief executive who has been with the firm for 25 years and seen the business go from privatisation through years as a public company and three years ago into a private company bought by the independent European fund, Arcus Infrastructure Partners.

Effectively it means Forth Ports is owned by pension funds, and that means a demand for steady and reliable income rather than the get-rich-quick approach which characterised businesses with property interests in the years before the banking crash.

Forth Ports was an enthusiastic player in the Edinburgh property scene, with its vast tracts of old industrial land at the heart of what was the city’s Waterfront dream.

If Ocean Terminal and Platinum Point are the monuments to the optimism of the times, the fenced-off, still-to-be-developed Waterfront Plaza opposite the shopping mall is the stark reminder of how it all went wrong.

But enthusiasm stopped short of wild speculation and as the business never borrowed money on the basis of expected profit from house sales, the crash just meant redirection rather than bankruptcy.

How many other firms wish they’d done the same?

The transition into private ownership has provided further clarity; it is a port operator first and foremost, and while there is still plenty scope for housing development it is not a priority.

This put Hammond on a collision course with Edinburgh’s planning and housing chiefs who still saw Britannia Quay as a site for 1300 flats while Hammond was fielding queries about port business opportunities.

It all exploded last month when in exasperation he wrote to city chief executive Sue Bruce to express his “significant disappointment” that Britannia Quay was still earmarked for housing in the local development plan.

He has a high regard for Ms Bruce, but it is safe to interpret that “significant disappointment” as outright fury that her officers did not appear to be listening to what he had been saying. The Western Harbour, dominated by Platinum Point, is still available for housing development and Hammond suggests that the existing plans, plus those for the Waterfront Plaza be revised to accommodate the homes lost from the Britannia Quay.

He suggests scrapping the areas set aside for parkland but if the original scheme was criticised for being the “slums of the future” then the removal of open green space is unlikely to go down well.

For now, even though Platinum Point is surrounded by undeveloped industrial land, the lines of BMWs and Audis in its car parks suggest it is not going to become a slum any time soon.

The Commonwealth Games project is just one example of what might be seen as the low-key but essential services ports provide and this is where Hammond’s focus is firmly fixed.

“Ports should be steady, predictable and reliable businesses because they deal with commodities which people will always need and that makes the business stable,” he says.

And if there is to be another property boom, it will be from supplying the raw materials for construction that Forth Ports will take advantage.

“This week we’ve seen the stories about the shortage of bricks, well we have created storage facilities at Tilbury and Leith so they can be shipped in.

“We’ve been able to do a deal for the movement of demolition materials from the St James site and we’ll play our part in getting building materials to it as well,” he says.

“The North Sea oilfields are still a great opportunity for us and we know that Leith is well-placed in the decommissioning market. For example, we had 36 North Sea oil vessels docked here during the bad weather earlier this year.”

Docking at Britannia Quay is behind the decision to move away from housing at the site, with the development of the cruise terminal now the priority.

There are 70 cruise ships docking on the Forth this summer – 27 at Rosyth, 20 at South Queensferry and 22 at Leith – but the key to growth is for more ships to be able to get as close as possible to the city 

The goal is for Leith to become a home port where ships are based, rather than a stop-off; and to increase capacity, there is a possibility of deep dredging at an expanded Newhaven Harbour.

However, there is talk of a rival new cruise terminal at Cockenzie now the power station has been de-commissioned and East Lothian Council is said to be keen.

Hammond vows to fight the plan: “I don’t think it would be anything like as good as we have here, but we couldn’t sit back and allow public money to be used to set up competition to an established private business.”

In the Forth Ports boardroom at the Prince of Wales Dock hang wonderful paintings of storms battering the old port and I get the impression that Charles Hammond is tired of the choppy waters buffeting what he sees as a business which should be more loved by the city than perhaps it is.

Maybe it’s an example of the perhaps mythological inability of its more genteel big sister up The Walk to understand Leith’s gritty, muscular working heritage?

There was the criticism of the housing plans, then the row over the biomass plant, and now there is even difficulty when the place just wants to get on with being a straightforward port.

“They want to be Rotterdam, not Amsterdam,” one councillor reportedly said.

Hammond certainly looks elsewhere to places like Dundee and Falkirk where the local authorities work in tandem with Forth Ports to get the best out of their facilities.

“Leith Docks is a strategic partner for the city, the same as the airport, and should be regarded as such,” he says.

It’s difficult to argue with that.

And the Dutch wouldn’t give up either Amsterdam or Rotterdam.

Forth Facts

• The Forth Ports Authority was created as a public trust in 1967 by an Act of Parliament.

• After the abolition of the National Dock Labour Scheme in 1989, the FPA was floated on the Stock Exchange in 1992.

• In control of Leith, Granton, Grangemouth, Methil, Kirkcaldy and Burntisland from 1967, the company acquired Tilbury and Dundee in 1995 and added Rosyth in 1999.

• The firm went private in 2011 when it was acquired by Arcus Infrastructure Partners.

• A controversial plan to site a biomass power station at Leith Docks was abandoned in 2012.

• Forth Ports employs 1160 staff and 50 per cent of Scotland’s GDP goes through its ports.

• Former lawyer, 52-year-old Airdrie-born CEO Charles Hammond, joined the firm in 1989 as company secretary and took the top job in 2001.

What’s the plan for custom house?

IT’S been a long time coming but the sale of the Leith Custom House by the Museums of Scotland to the city council for £650,000 should be a welcome development.

Welcome, that is, when we know exactly what the council plans to do with it.

I will give culture leader (sounds a bit Mao-ist for my liking) Councillor Richard Lewis the benefit of the doubt and believe there is a proper plan for the building in existence, despite him giving the clear impression to the contrary.

He told the Evening News: “We are determined to take the project forward and identify how and when we can help open the doors to a heritage centre for Leith.

“We are currently undertaking due diligence procedures and a report will be put to the full council on how to take plans forward.”

I can’t think for a minute that the council would spend £650,000 of our money on a building and only then start to work out what to do with it.

So I’m going on the presumption that the plan is in a drawer somewhere and we’ll know all about it before too much longer.