I’m privileged to be a Member of Parliament – when your passion is politics there really is no better job. I’m even more privileged to represent Edinburgh East: a constituency that takes in the magnificent natural beauty of Arthur’s Seat, our historic castle and a world heritage site. We are a European capital to be proud of.
But there’s something we need to talk about when it comes to the heart of our unique city: the controversy that is planning. Our city is growing and nothing stays the same. Development is necessary in a vibrant and dynamic city like ours. But I fear that our planners are at risk of leaving our residents behind as they chart the future. And there will be a bitter harvest if that is the case.
There have been several controversial planning applications recently that have divided locals – from the development of the old Royal High School building on Calton Hill to King’s Stables Yard off the Grassmarket.
One recent decision in my own patch which has sparked local outrage is the development of India Buildings on Victoria Street. Proposals for a 235-bedroom hotel, restaurant, bar and retail space at the back of the Central Library were approved over the summer.
I’m not happy at how the decision was taken and I have now asked the Scottish government to intervene.
The site adjoins the Central Library, one of the finest Carnegie-endowed buildings in the country with the motto “Let there be light”. Yet the light is likely to be severely compromised when the new complex is built right alongside. Campaigners also point out that land was bequeathed for a potential extension to the library space.
Most local people would no objection to a small boutique hotel in Victoria Street – it is after all right in the heart of our tourist district. But 235 bedrooms! And this with little thought about how the tourists, never mind the supplies and services they will need, get delivered along a narrow medieval street. There are also the car and lorry fumes this will add to the Cowgate, already one of the most polluted streets in the city.
Our city has a huge estate: schools, libraries, sports centres, community centres, offices and commercial premises in every corner of our city. Years of financial pressure from central government have left repair and maintenance budgets bare and some of the stock is literally falling apart.
With money so tight it makes good sense to sell off some properties so you can properly look after others. But this has to done to a plan which puts social objectives first. We cannot just sit back and watch majestic buildings replaced with tacky ones. And we must ensure that people can still live and work in our city centre even as change and development proceeds.
One urban myth that’s worth debunking is these building are being sold to pay for the trams. They aren’t. The capital receipts from property sales couldn’t be used to pay the interest charges on the trams loans even if the council wanted to. The budgets are completely separate.
What’s important here is having a coherent plan of how we move forward and ensuring the views of local people are listened to. Positive steps are being taken to allow community voices to be heard. I have high hopes for the Community Empowerment Bill that my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament have worked hard on, for example. And those voices need to be heard in our city. So please, can we pause for breath, talk to each other and think about what the vision is for the future of our city. It’s time to stop selling Edinburgh by the pound.
Tommy Sheppard is the SNP MP for Edinburgh East