Sheila Gilmore: Think long-term on student flats

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ONE of the joys of studying at the University of Edinburgh is that students live and work alongside a vibrant and varied residential community.

Unfortunately this could be about to change, with a flood of planning applications for student accommodation in the Southside threatening to alter irrevocably the character of the area.

One of the applications – to build flats for 240 students at Lutton Court – was rejected by councillors on the planning committee but approved on appeal.

However, the council could still stop this proposal in its tracks, as crucially, it still owns the land.

I appreciate the estates department has an agreement to sell to the developers, and may have to pay compensation, but this may be a price worth paying in the long term.

Once land is sold it is gone. The opportunity to develop it for affordable housing, to attract more families and pensioners to the area, would be lost.

Regrettably such joined-up and long-term thinking is conspicuous by its absence in the estates department.

Just last month it announced that the shortlisted bidders for another piece of land on Potterrow are all student accommodation providers.

And in a separate but related story, the department is set to lease the Old Royal High School on Calton Hill to a luxury hotel chain, necessitating the construction of two obtrusive new wings to the building that could threaten the city’s Unesco World Heritage status.

While the council is clearly under pressure to raise additional revenue, I believe that before considering a sale of council land there should be a full appraisal of all the options.

Against the short-term gain of a capital receipt, other priorities must be weighed, such as shortage of affordable housing, the needs of local small businesses or the heritage which brings tourists flocking to the city.

In some cases the right decision may still be to sell on the market, in others the long-term interests of Edinburgh residents would dictate other options.

As there are no MPs at present, I am merely Scottish Labour’s candidate for Edinburgh East at the general election.

However, regardless of the result of the vote on May 7, I’ll continue to lobby the council to work for balanced, sustainable communities, and development that respects our city’s architectural heritage.

Sheila Gilmore is the Scottish Labour candidate in Edinburgh East