John McLellan: Murrayfield decision is a real game-changer for planning

Edinburgh Rugby will soon be playing matches at a 7800-seater stadium beside Murrayfield. Picture: Getty
Edinburgh Rugby will soon be playing matches at a 7800-seater stadium beside Murrayfield. Picture: Getty
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Finally Edinburgh Rugby is on the last stretch of its 22-year search for a permanent home; Murrayfield, Myreside, Meadowbank, Meggetland, Easter Road and back again to Murrayfield where the city council has granted permission for a new 7800-seater stadium on the back pitches.

It means the loss of one of the four pitches behind the international stadium, but that’s surely a price worth paying to give the side a purpose-built base? Is it that simple? Current coach Richard Cockerill, who spent the vast majority of his career in the bear-pit of Leicester’s Welford Road, thinks so and enthused that it “becomes our own atmosphere, our own pitch, our own stadium, our own branding, all those things. We can build our own identity and move forward. Hopefully this will be the start of something very special for us.”

Scottish Rugby’s chief operating officer Dominic McKay wrote to city planning officers: “Edinburgh Rugby has spent many years working together with City of Edinburgh Council and other partners to establish a home of its own and has explored and exhausted the city’s viable options.”

READ MORE: Edinburgh Rugby given go-ahead for new 7,800-seater stadium

All true, and Scottish Rugby can’t be faulted for trying to find a permanent solution and, although it’s been staring them in the face for years, for finally producing what looks like an ideal set-up for the professional outfit.

But that’s not the whole story. The collateral damage is Murrayfield Wanderers, one of Scotland’s oldest rugby clubs which in one form or another has played on the back pitches for over 100 years, which built a new clubhouse next to the main stadium with the proceeds of the sale of its old base on Corstorphine Road and now finds itself evicted thanks to a naïvely slack tenancy agreement with the old Scottish Rugby Union 25 years ago.

Wanderers want to make Roseburn Park their new home, but plans to rebuild the cricket pavilion have run into stiff opposition from the Friends of Roseburn Park, which does not want a general public amenity fenced off for rugby.

This is where it gets messy because Scottish Rugby has given an undertaking to upgrade two pitches at Roseburn because Scottish planning policy dictates the lost pitch must be replaced somehow. If it’s not Roseburn, the deal is that Scottish Rugby pays £150,000 to the council for it to invest elsewhere, probably Saughton Park.

The problem is these conditions aren’t binding because council officers believed Wanderers’ involvement with improvements to the Roseburn pitches complicated matters. The decision report states: “Given . . . these mitigation measures involve third parties, any legal agreement with the council or condition regarding these measures would neither be practical nor enforceable.”

Scottish Rugby has only given Wanderers a vague summary of the work they will carry out and the club has no option but to accept because the alternative is the council gets the money to spend elsewhere, leaving Wanderers with pitches needing work and no means to pay for it.

Yet none of this has been discussed in public because officers approved the application under “delegated authority” without planning committee councillors (of which I’m one) scrutinising the proposal. It wasn’t advertised but received ten public comments, seven of which were objections including one from Murrayfield ice Rink.

Permission was granted because it did not appear to contravene any council policies, but the rules also state that delegation is appropriate if it is not considered to be “controversial or of significant public interest”.

I don’t doubt mini-Murrayfield itself should go ahead, but this decision also has implications for the maintenance of public land at the heart of a public campaign.

Given councillors are regularly asked to decide things like house extensions, shopfronts and advertising hoardings, if a major infrastructure project at an iconic sports venue with implications for council property isn’t of significant public interest, I don’t know what is.