John McLellan: Why councillors had to turn down Save Leith Walk petition

Stunning, a slap in the face, yer a joke. Passions were certainly running high when the Save Leith Walk campaign were unable to lodge their 12,000-name petition against the highly-publicised plan for student flats on the street with the city’s planning committee last week.

“It was a slap in the face for all those who want save what is important in our community and to see it develop in line with the wishes of local people,” campaigner Ian Hood told the Evening News.

Save Leith Walk Protest, Petition handover at Edinburgh City Chambers, Drum Property

Save Leith Walk Protest, Petition handover at Edinburgh City Chambers, Drum Property

I was one of the councillors on that committee and we only learnt the day before that a deputation would be coming to the meeting when we were briefed on the legal technicalities. When I saw the demonstration outside the City Chambers it was obvious there was trouble ahead.

READ MORE: Edinburgh Council “refuses” 12,000-strong Leith Walk petition

So it proved. The case was not part of the agenda, but the deputation read out their messages, which mainly focused on what they regarded as the unfairness of the process and asked for the committee’s support to change the system. They returned to the public gallery in stony silence, no questions having been asked and the petition unaccepted.

Had we formally accepted the petition it ran the risk of being seen as a tacit acceptance of the campaign’s arguments, and if planning permission was subsequently refused it would have opened the door for the applicants to either take the council to court or appeal the decision. Possibly both.

Similarly, had the committee entered into a discussion it risked the developer picking up on a loose phrase here or a loaded question there to indicate a pre-conceived view. Had that councillor then taken part in the eventual decision it would create another reason for legal challenge.

What is often misunderstood is that councillors considering planning applications are performing a similar function to jurors in a criminal case, not representing particular interests, and must therefore be even-handed and transparent in applying regulations. If they wish to press a point of view they must stand aside.

The owners of the site have rights too and the planning process is designed to give all views a fair hearing and for councillors to decide each case on its merits based on the best information before them, including arguments for and against.

READ MORE: Leith Walk campaigners to host ‘Objectathon’ in bid to boost opposition

There will almost certainly be a full hearing into the application in which community councils, campaigners and the developers will be able to put their case and be asked questions by the committee, but what the campaigners sought last week could have been seen as tipping the balance against the developers.

If proper procedure isn’t followed the decision could be taken out of the council’s hands and it would have been better for all concerned if all this had been properly discussed in advance and an alternative way found for their point to be made. But by the time the campaigners had gathered in the City Chambers quadrangle and packed the public gallery it was too late.

Councillors don’t live in a bubble and are well aware of the issues this application is raising.

Formally accepted or not, I couldn’t fail to notice the stack of petition papers given they were right next to me in the committee room; nor could my colleagues. I also worked with Pete Mason, who co-founded the threatened Leith Depot music and arts venue and who opposes the development, but I have also met the developer on one occasion to discuss St Margaret’s House in Meadowbank which they have just bought.

I’ve not discussed this scheme with either, and can’t come to a view because the scheme has not been presented.

My mind remains entirely open on the merits or otherwise of what’s being proposed and that’s as it should be. Noses are unfortunately out of joint, but no faces have been slapped.