The battle for a new Portobello High School was a long one, as many readers know. Some children, who were promised in Primary 2 a new “big school”, toasted their 18th birthdays without stepping in it.
Much of the delay was associated with where to build it, with a small but vocal minority resistant to its presence on Portobello Park. They’d discovered the park was common good land and built an argument rooted in a belief that a school was not for the common good of everyone.
At the time, Andy Wightman was an author and researcher. Scotland’s leading land reform campaigner. I’d just read his book Who Owns Scotland and audaciously decided to invite him to speak about common good land in Portobello Town Hall. It was absolutely stowed out and felt like a definitive turning point for the school.
Andy now sits in the Scottish Parliament and I have to tell you that I consider him an outstanding MSP. He’s incredibly thorough when it comes to the detail and also deeply political and astute enough to pick his moments. He’s principled and passionate about the causes he fights for, but never tribal. He’s become a pal and I’m going to miss him when I leave Holyrood.
Today, he has Scotland’s planning system in his sights and in just days, the Parliament will vote on a new bill, which will shape what we build where and how we use it for decades.
It’s the perfect opportunity for a skilled MSP such as Andy to start a political crusade against the short-term letting industry which poses real challenges for our great capital city.
Whilst we thrive on the tourism that this beautiful city brings in, we know that the city’s hotels are bursting at the seams and that more visitors want the real Edinburgh experience of living in someone’s home.
Yet that highly sought after experience is under threat when whole stairwells are hollowed out of local residents and replaced with key box systems and the sound of wheelie suitcases being bounced down concrete stairs in the middle of the night.
Reports tell us Edinburgh has the highest concentration of short-term lets, commonly referred to as AirBnbs, (other operators are available) of any European capital. Whilst some politicians cry, “something must be done,” Andy is doing it.
Moreover, if you listened to the lobbyists for these companies, you’d think Andy’s proposals were so radical and dangerous that he deserved to be locked up in the dungeons of Edinburgh Castle. Yet, what he’s proposing is so breathtakingly sensible – only dirty tricks could defeat it, more of that in a second.
If a property in residential area is being used 100 per cent of the year as a short-term let, it’s not a residence but a business. Andy argues that if you wanted to turn your flat into a fried chicken shop you’d require planning consent because that would be a material change of use. The same argument should apply here. If a residence stops having residents but clients, it’s a change of use and should be subject to the planning system. Simple. So simple in fact that the Parliament committee agreed the principle of that and its written into the law as it is currently presented to MSPs.
However, the Tories, with what feels like a nudge and a wink from the SNP, have tabled a wrecking amendment in at 11th hour, the effect of which would be to water down Andy’s proposal to such an extent that it would be the equivalent of chucking an espresso in the Water of Leith and calling it black coffee.
If this passes next week all of Andy’s serious, careful, balanced work will be lost and residents will continue to suffer from their community being hollowed out by wholly commercial interests. If you care about that, it’s time to email your SNP MSP and let them know you won’t be let down.