John McLellan: Meadowbank row is going to run and run

An artist's impression of the entrance of the redeveloped Meadowbank sports centre
An artist's impression of the entrance of the redeveloped Meadowbank sports centre
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Far be it from me to help the council’s administration sort out the deepening problems with the Meadowbank redevelopment, but from what I saw of last week’s protest meeting it needs all the assistance it can get.

More than 100 people turned up at Meadowbank Church to express their anger about the decision to press ahead with development of the stadium complex, which was remarkable given permission for the detailed sports centre plans, and the principle of turning over the rest of the site to housing and commercial use, was granted three months ago. Indeed the attendance even took the church’s Rev Russell McLarty, now a campaign leading light, by surprise.

The go-ahead at the June meeting was on condition that the public consultation was reopened to address community concerns, but on the evidence of last Wednesday attitudes have, if anything, hardened and the levels of cynicism about the council’s intentions remain as high as ever, despite some council-run public 
evidence-gathering sessions.

READ MORE: Council leader ‘running scared’ over Meadowbank meeting

The seeds of the latest problem lay in repeated assurances at the planning meeting that the consultation would start with a blank sheet of paper, when that could never be the case and last week’s protest gathering kicked off with those councillors’ quotes. Exacerbating the situation is the new consultation being run by housing officials, which opponents not surprisingly say is proof that housing is inevitable. They are not wrong.

Internally, some officers concede the communications need a re-think and it’s hard to disagree. Despite repeated protestations that proposals are far from finalised, one lady told the meeting of her anger at the prospect of multi-storey blocks overlooking her house, the impression created by indicative drawings as the applications were being drawn up last year.

The impact on car parking, school places and health provision as well as the sports facilities remain contentious and few believe a new health centre will address worries about the effect of local population growth on services when most recognise a building won’t solve the health staff shortage.

Edinburgh Leisure has been unable to counter the repeated claim that 40 per cent of the sports facilities will be lost or that the cost of building an international athletics stadium is prohibitive, even though just the temporary athletics facilities at Hampden for the 2014 Commonwealth Games cost £14m, with little to show for it today. There are those who want the whole project halted, including the sports centre, but the reality is there is little, if anything, to stop it going ahead bar lack of money. That raises the spectre of increasing the density of development to raise capital.

READ MORE: Campaigners unveil alternative vision for Meadowbank’s future

As far as the rest of the site is concerned, the council is caught between a rock and a hard place; it needs to get ideas out as quickly as possible to give people visions of what’s likely to dispel fears about scale, but doing so risks reinforcing the belief that the consultation is a sham.

I didn’t oppose the sport centre plans but didn’t support granting permission in principle for the rest of the site because holding back was the only way to fully convince local people the new consultation was genuine and to give breathing space for a rethink about density and funding. The reaction from some on the committee was, I recall, a suggestion it was effectively my responsibility to sell the council’s process to the community.

So in that spirit, a way forward would be to produce a variety of options which preserve open space at the heart of the site; demonstrate more than just vague claims which few accept, gather a range of views and see what people like and don’t like. Don’t give people the impression of listening and then go off to do what was planned all along; that’s what the people at Meadowbank Church last week think is happening.