John McLellan: What of Edinburgh masterplan?

Exchange Two runs from Morrison Street to the back of Rutland Square
Exchange Two runs from Morrison Street to the back of Rutland Square
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It is one of the last missing pieces of the city centre jigsaw, but the sale of a key component agreed yesterday could mean time is up for an exciting masterplan for what became known as Exchange Two.

Stretching from Morrison Street to the back of Rutland Square some estimates put the total value of the site at £50 million but ownership of the site is complex.

The City Council, ScottishPower and Miller Developments all have an interest, not forgetting Network Rail which is responsible for the Waverley-Haymarket tunnel underneath.

Now the Council has decided to sell its chunk to a London-based developer Croydon Hotels Ltd in a deal which could be worth up to £3m for the city.

Exchange Two took in the Conference House office block, the listed Victorian electricity sub-station on Dewar Place and a vacant plot on Torphichen Street, with plans to redevelop the site as a single project to complement the existing Exchange District first discussed nine years ago.

Since the demolition of the Princes Street railway station in 1970, the old track bed and goods yards have been gradually redeveloped, first by the West Approach Road and Sheraton Hotel, the EICC, headquarters for Scottish Widows and Standard Life, the Clydesdale Bank Plaza, and most recently the EICC’s Atrium extension.

This remaining corner proved problematic but an ambitious masterplan was finally approved by the City Council in 2010 which promised to bring ownership together under one grand strategy to breathe life into an area which has fulfilled some but not all expectations.

Conference Square, bounded by the EICC, the Atrium, the Sheraton Spa and Exchange Crescent could have been an attractive place but without shops, bars or restaurants it has remained defiantly lifeless. Santini’s, the high-end Italian restaurant, closed because of lack of custom and without places to socialise no-one lingers or meets there and those who use it just dash through on the way to or from work.

Exchange Two aimed to rectify that with shops and, of course, a hotel, but the most striking aspect was to have been the creation of a new plaza, to be known as St Cuthbert’s Square, to connect with Conference Square by building a cover over the West Approach Road.

A developer was appointed, but the Council pulled the plug on the deal three years later because of a lack of progress, but with the expectation that the masterplan could still be carried out by a different firm.

After the successful remodelling of Haymarket station and the progress with the goods yard redevelopment behind, the time should be 
right to complete the puzzle.

But now the different interests are going their own way, with the Council selling its interest and ScottishPower appointing a consortium including Duddingston House Properties, the company behind the hotel plan for the Old Royal High School, to look at what can be done with their plot.

The sub-station at the heart of ScottishPower’s site is still a vital part of the city centre’s infrastructure and the company has recently completed an upgrade of the cable network. The B-listed Victorian façade was to have been transformed into an arts venue under the original scheme, but that has now been shelved and the company no longer has an active proposal but hopes the consortium will produce something it can take forward.

Meanwhile, the Council’s sale is recognition that hotel demand in this area remains high; apart from the existing Premier Inn and the hotel now being built at the Haymarket goods yard, another hotel plan at 24-28 Torphichen Street was approved only in February this year.

What all this means for the masterplan is impossible to tell, but it’s hard to see the original, joined-up vision becoming a reality any time soon.

Sources at both the Council and ScotttishPower agree that the scheme was broadly welcomed at the time, so it could still form the basis for plans in the future although clearly there can be no guarantees.

In any case, the full programme can only be completed once detailed surveys have been done on the rail tunnels and a reinforcement plan agreed with Network Rail, as had to happen at Haymarket.

St Cuthbert’s Square will have to wait.

The Old Lady needs taken care of

As the Festival season winds up this weekend, it’s a time when artistic and cultural organisations wrestle with the challenge of making sure as much of the excitement of the last three weeks as possible is maintained all year round.

Not so long ago one problem which wouldn’t go away was what to do about the King’s Theatre which panto season apart was a struggle to fill.

But over the last couple of years a strong programme of quality, popular productions has been developed and this year’s programme of shows like A View from The Bridge, Twelve Angry Men and Jeeves & Wooster have proved that the Old Lady of Leven Street has a vibrant future.

Coming up this autumn is the Arthur Miller play All My Sons, The Shawshank Redemption, and the comedy Handbagged about the conversations Margaret Thatcher might have had with the Queen.

But it has also shown that the Old Lady is in need of care and attention if the potential is to be fully realised. It’s a lesson its council owners learned over 20 years ago when the Festival Theatre was revived and the modern facilities there mean there is a solid income stream from its café and bars as well as from ticket sales.

The Usher Hall, too, is exceeding targets after the opening of its extension.

At the King’s, extra sales are more difficult because the one bar isn’t big enough to handle a high volume of customers and another significant problem is access for elderly and disabled people.

So a plan is being hatched to use space between the theatre and Bennett’s bar to bring the venue up to scratch, in particular to install lifts so the Gods are accessible to all.

The Festival City Theatres Trust, which runs both the King’s and the Festival Theatre, hopes to raise the necessary cash through the City Deal now being assembled by the six councils covering Fife and the South East but it will not be an easy case to make.

If successful the City Deal will attract £1bn of government investment and it is hoped will then lever a further £3bn from private investors and the scheme is designed to support infrastructure projects which will benefit the whole region.

The core of Edinburgh’s approach is to find ways to boost three key areas of the economy – education, information technology and culture – and it’s into the latter category the King’s project will fit.

FCTT management argue strongly that Edinburgh’s theatres are a regional amenity without which the International Festival would be hobbled and then by extension the year-round cultural offering would also be threatened.

It’s a straightforward argument to make to the City Council, but I suspect other authorities might take some convincing that the refurbishment of an Edinburgh theatre should be on the regional priority list.

But the bid is worthy of support. The other authorities don’t have theatres of this scale and neither can they afford to create them, but the kind of shows the King’s now specialises in – good quality productions starring recognisable names should be drawing in audiences from beyond the city boundaries.

Shows like this year’s Yer Granny might have been based on an Argentinian classic unheard of by most mainstream audiences, but with a cast comprising Gregor Fisher, Barbara Rafferty and Jonathan Watson it was a hit.

As for the panto, Allan, Grant and Andy read out plenty of names every night of people who are not from the city of Edinburgh itself.

There might be a bit of persuading to do, but the King’s deserves investment and the City Deal should be a way of delivering it.

Chance to look back at police changes

The resignation of Sir Stephen House as chief constable of Scotland affords a chance to reassess how the amalgamation of the old police forces has been implemented and to make changes.

What it should not be is an excuse to blame one man for everything that’s gone wrong and for his successor to carry on as before.

The principle of cutting costs by reducing the duplication of behind-the-scenes services was a good one, but out with the bathwater of an inefficient eight force system went local accountability and flexibility as well as the introduction of inefficiencies which ultimately had tragic consequences.

It was not a mistake to cut the number of forces, but it was an error to go down to just one and create a situation where all eggs were thrown into one basket without any regard as to how strong it was.

While much of the attention in Edinburgh focussed on the implementation of Strathclyde’s much stricter approach to the sex trade than the liberal attitude of Lothian & Borders, but of far greater significance was the dogmatic change in attitude to house-breaking which was little short of catastrophic.

The new chief constable’s challenge is to restore public confidence in a battered and bruised service but re-establishing the control and local accountability which has led to so many of the problems could well be beyond one person.

The SNP Government is unlikely to dismantle the system it introduced, it’s probably too late for that, but big changes are needed. Creating a new structure beneath the chief constable where divisional commanders with broader remits across wider areas but subjected to far greater political scrutiny would be a start.

A new system of scrutiny should mean the end of the line for the chair of the police authority, Vic Emery. He did a good job in tackling the trams, but the poor relationship with House probably means a fresh start is needed there too.

The return of something we can recognise as Lothian & Borders Police, and the successful leadership provided by a succession of chief constables like Paddy Tomkins, David Strang and Roy Cameron cannot come too soon.