Edinburgh student accommodation: Protest at 'undemocratic' Scottish Government decision over Tynecastle plans

Government decision overturned council refusal of permission
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Protesters staged a demonstration outside Edinburgh’s former Tynecastle High School on Saturday (11 February) against the Scottish Government’s approval of plans for the building to be turned into student accommodation.

The government decision overturns Edinburgh City Council’s refusal of planning permission for the development. Campaigners from Living Rent gathered along with other members of the community to protest at the move, which they said meant that community voices and local democracy had been completely ignored. A long-running campaign had argued the site should be used for affordable housing.

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Local resident and Living Rent membership officer Ruaraidh Dempster said: “The fact that we can go through the proper processes, win and then still be overruled makes a complete joke of the planning system, and of the idea that the Scottish government represents our interests.”

Living Rent campaigners and other members of the community demonstrated outside the old Tynecastle High School on Saturday morning.Living Rent campaigners and other members of the community demonstrated outside the old Tynecastle High School on Saturday morning.
Living Rent campaigners and other members of the community demonstrated outside the old Tynecastle High School on Saturday morning.

The application by S1 Developments to convert the old school in McLeod Street into accommodation for 468 students was recommended for approval by Edinburgh’s planning officials in September 2022, but councillors voted to reject the plans and called on developers to draw up plans for residential housing instead. There were 233 public objections to the proposals and the council’s environmental protection team said plans should be refused, arguing that industrial noise from the North British Distillery which lies next to the site would significantly impact on living conditions. In addition, councillors said odours coming from the distillery would lead to a poor level of amenity.

But last month, a Scottish Government Reporter granted planning permission, saying "development of the site for mainstream housing would be constrained by the presence of the listed buildings", making student development a more viable option. He said the site would be more suitable for students "who would only spend part of their year in residence" and then only for the length of their university or college courses.

The reporter’s decision met an angry reaction from councillors and community groups opposed to the development. Living Rent says Gorgie and the immediate area has the fourth highest number of student beds in Scotland. It says over the past decade, planning permission has been obtained for over 1000 student units, with hundreds more approved or under construction. In the same period the local population has doubled but just 85 affordable homes have been built. Living Rent stresses that it is not anti-student but argues that what the community really needs is more social and “actually affordable” housing.

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Living Rent member Aditi Jehangir said: “Purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) is expensive for students and it deprives communities of real affordable, social housing. Gorgie already has an excess of PBSA, we don’t need more. This campaign shows the undemocratic and inaccessible nature of planning: even though the community won at the council level, they were overruled by the Scottish Government following a pattern that has been seen time and time again. The community is out today to say enough is enough. No more PBSA, we need social housing.”

And Olly Brown, chair of the Gorgie Dalry branch of Living Rent, added: “It is completely undemocratic to ignore the decision at the council sub-committee level and the community. As a branch we have been campaigning against this development for years and it is so clear that public sentiment against it is really strong. Gorgie needs better options – for students and other local residents. We need to prioritise actually affordable housing over expensive PBSA”