John McLellan: St James failure suggests wrong approach

Have your say

It might be too late in the day now, but anger in the city centre salons has gone from simmering to boiling point at the permission granted to the St James Centre plans.

A petition has raised hundreds of signatures and their views articulated by newspaper articles and letters from the likes of David Black, the former chair of the Southside Association and publisher Hugh Andrew.

The decisions are further examples of wanton civic vandalism; the sky, it would seem, is falling in.

Black has rehashed his argument that World Heritage status is a waste of time because it does not stop the kind of developments he doesn’t like, which is a very particular way of looking at it.

What these critics are failing to do is examine the reasons for their failure or in any way apply the analysis to which they subject the decisions to their own processes. If so many decisions are so obviously wrong then why do opponents keep losing? The black-and-white-hat, goodies-and-baddies script which seems to be in vogue is far too simplistic to be credible.

The argument seems to be that rapacious capitalists can spend a fortune cajoling stupid councillors into doing what they want while the poor, resourceless conservation lobby is powerless.

This is the same conservation lobby backed by some of the wealthiest people in Scotland to whom no door is closed. The scenario simply doesn’t hold water.

What happened when the original 17-storey Haymarket hotel plan was revealed? Some very influential people got together and strangled the project at birth. What is happening with the Royal High School? Millions of pounds are being made available for an alternative to the luxury hotel plan.

Former Standard Life chief executive and Royal Bank of Scotland director Sir Sandy Crombie is president of the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh’s heritage watchdog since Victorian times, and Supreme Court judge Lord Brodie is its chair. They are not easy people to ignore should they chose to flex their considerable muscle.

At the heart of it must be the approach of the heritage and environment lobby and criticism of the World Heritage status must also imply criticism of Edinburgh World Heritage, the charity established to monitor and comment on anything which might affect the city’s Unesco status.

Yet it seems to be more open to discussion and compromise – it supported the concept of the controversial ribbon design for the St James hotel, for example – which may be part of the problem as far as heritage militants are concerned.

The Cockburn Association, however, seems to escape criticism, perhaps because of the influential figures at the top.

It still presents itself as a respected organisation promoting balanced and considered views, yet this week its director Marion Williams went on the offensive over a plan to demolish the derelict Imperial Grain silo at Leith Docks, a hideous eyesore by any stretch of the imagination.

Owner Forth Ports’ understandably wants to get rid of an ugly building for which it has no use, yet Williams says the potential economic benefits of removing the granary are no justification for “losing a building of remarkable merit”.

I suspect most locals would agree the only remarkable thing about it is that anyone would seek its preservation.

It may be that the mistake in the first place was Historic Scotland granting listed building status to an industrial structure which has long outlived its sole purpose, but that doesn’t justify saddling the city with a crumbling eyesore for the rest of time.

Williams’s criticism centres on the principle of developing the site for commercial gain, which fits into a broader agenda which now seems to be firmly anti-business and anti-growth.

A sign of the association’s direction could be the place on its council now taken by Pam Barnes, who led the opposition to Edinburgh Accies’ redevelopment of their Raeburn Place ground, and is mother of Rosy Barnes who headed the campaign against Craighouse.

According to the Cockburn website, Barnes “wishes to challenge the Scottish Government and Historic Scotland as well as the CEC on their attitudes to economic development.”

That’s fine if you happen to share that sort of opinion or if the Cockburn Association wishes to join Jeremy Corbyn on the political spectrum, but that’s not the image they present.

Some influential figures sympathetic to the cause of responsible conservation are now beginning to question the relevance of the Cockburn Association because of the shrill, blinkered and aggressive approach it increasingly takes even where the issues are far from clear cut.

That Edinburgh is an extremely sensitive city is beyond doubt but it is also a place which has always been driven by commerce and any organisations which believe in constructive progress need to take both into 

A heritage and environment watchdog whose opinions are respected and heeded is an essential part of the development process, but while the Cockburn Association still gets a hearing its recent track record suggests few are listening.

The Cockburn Association’s positions are drawn up by its cases committee which, it claims, “gives constructive comment... with considerable care and attention.” It needs to live up to that ideal or be ignored.

Whether the city is facing a crisis is a matter of opinion, not one I particularly share, but defeat after defeat suggests one is now gripping the heritage lobby and maybe those involved need a gilt-framed Georgian mirror in which to take a long hard look at themselves.

As the old cliché goes, one definition of stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

• The Mactaggart & Mickel development at Gilmerton was granted on appeal because of non-determination by Edinburgh council, not after a refusal as I said last week. Happy to set the record straight.

Entitled to be confused

I won’t be alone in wondering what an Executive Director: Place actually does for a living, but we’re getting one anyway.

This is the new title for a job which is basically to run most of the difficult things in Edinburgh apart from schools and social services – all the stuff which needs a fine eye for detail – while the chief executive gets on with “bigger picture” stuff.

So the Executive Director: Place is actually in charge of the bins, transport and planning in what used to be known as communities when it was run by Mark Turley, the man scapegoated for the Mortonhall baby ashes scandal.

The new man is Paul Lawrence, above, from Stockport Council, described as a “regeneration guru” who as their Corporate Director, Services to Place will be one of the few who actually understands what the new title means.

This is not to be confused with the Executive Director: Plaice who will be charged with improving council catering, or the Executive Director: Palace who will be refitting the new management suite on Market Street.

In the spirit of modernisation and positive messaging, I am told the redefinition of other senior responsibilities is also under discussion and the director for children and families will be known as Executive Director: Happiness, the economic development chief will become Executive Director: Growth, while health and social care will be run by the Executive Director: Vigour.

The new titles don’t tell you what the people actually do, but that’s not the point. It’s to convey the multi-disciplined nature of the roles and serves as a constant reminder of the ultimate goals each department seeks to achieve.

Just tell us how much

There are different types of consultation exercises. There are ones where the consulter genuinely doesn’t know what’s for the best and wants to find out what people think.

Then there are those when a decision has already been made but the organisation still needs to go through the motions.

Into the latter category I suspect will fall the city council’s consultation on extending city centre parking charges to later in the evening and on Sundays.

After all, how many people other than the environment lobby, whose views will already be known, are going to say “Yes please, when can it start?”

Sunday charging in particular will just be a revenue earner pure and simple, so the real question is how much and what will the council do with the money?