Planning Edinburgh's future in the time of Coronavirus

Planning Edinburgh's future in the time of Coronavirus

by Cllr Jo Mowat
article from Tuesday 31, March, 2020

WHEN Edinburgh Council went into an early recess and cancelled Committees, emails started coming in from a few constituents asking whether the current consultation Choices for City Plan 2030 would be extended.  My initial, optimistic, response was to question why we would extend something that had been open since the end of January and was due to close on 31st March? 

We had only started to get serious about cancelling Committees and sending council staff home to work in the week beginning 16th March. A single public consultation event was cancelled and with the consultation being carried out online this could have been a good opportunity to gather additional responses.  This initial reaction was largely informed by the very tight timescale that the Council has in place for completing the Local Development Plan (now called City Plan – of which Choices 2030 is the first consultation phase) and the risk that happens when you don’t have one.  

Edinburgh has been in this position before and the result is that granting permission for major applications is handed over to the Department of Planning and Environmental Appeals which means there is no room for the voice of the community.  Planning becomes a reductive exercise about putting houses down anywhere a developer has a bit of green space.  Not only this does enrage neighbouring communities (with varying degrees of justification) but gnaws away at the fragile thread of trust between local government and communities.  

Having had a week sitting at home watching the Governments’ response, the increasing lockdown and the relaxation of rules and regulations I am reasonably confident that we can make a solid argument that extending the consultation period is the right thing to do. I have no doubt that the responses we get will change pre and post lockdown and that this will throw up new ideas.  Many of the responses will be amplifications and justifications of previously held positions (see Jeremy Corbin) but some will have a validity and we will have to consider whether we do need to do things differently.

For my part I hope that my long held view will finally prevail that Government at all levels should be an enabler.  

The Chancellor has chosen to respond in a way that tries to put the economy in aspic so it can bounce back once the lockdown is over.  We don’t know whether this will happen.  What we do know is that large companies usually found in the Central Business District of cities are not operating from these and will have the opportunity to test whether they need such large and expensive estates.  It is blindingly obvious that Edinburgh’s oft repeated commitment to a “living city centre” has not resulted in a healthy community and that the “vibrancy” so beloved of the current leader of the administration is wholly imported.  

I live a mile away from the city centre and there is significantly more activity on my street than in the Old Town.  This should worry us as a city and hopefully we will be able to act in time to ensure that we don’t’ end up with a sterile playground for visitors and a stage set for lawyers.  Changes in the world of retail that were already being felt will be accelerated as people have been exiled from non-food shops during the lockdown.  

Many will associate the Local Plan with interventionist policies and land allocations for housing.  Most people are probably unaware that the issue of land allocation is foisted upon us by the Scottish Government – if we don’t allocate enough land they take over the planning.   The current Convener of the Planning Committee and his Green tail are keen to prescribe very little detail of housing – in an overheated market this adds to the cost of housing meaning families often choose to buy more houses outwith the city boundary and then commute in for work creating congestion.  What the Plan should be is an exercise in deciding where the infrastructure goes.   

Post Corona the Scottish Government will have to review current infrastructure spending commitments and in Edinburgh’s case could commit to using City Deal money to allow us to build the infrastructure for housing. This would enable developers, large and small, land self-builders to build  the housing secure in the knowledge that the needs of the occupants for transport, schools, shops and medical facilities are in place.

When the lockdown is over and the country is getting back on its feet we will have decisions about the type of country we want to be – is this local plan going to be an exercise in pettifogging regulation or could it commit to providing the infrastructure and unleash the market to provide the housing? 

Could we find a way to Get Edinburgh Going again or will the choice be made to  swaddle the economy so tightly that we stifle the recovery?  There’s a lot of choices in the document – which you can see here – but the real one we have to face up to is whether we want to be enablers or stiflers.

Image by Darilon from Pixabay 

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