Why I Joined Planning Democracy and Why we Need More Democracy in Planning
A blog post from our latest PD recruit Paul Beswick.
As chair and planning officer for Edinburgh Tollcross Community Council, I have been involved in many planning issues. This area, Fountainbridge, has seen the biggest inner city development land available since the building of the New Town. I thought I could best describe the planning processes residents and the community council have been involved in and the changes we have seen by summarising all the developments in Fountainbridge over a decade or more.
First came the Master Plan; although it was one of several which gradually diminished in scope and size. The use zone was for mixed development. The Plan mentioned lots of housing, a new community, living and working in the area. There would be a new canal basin, a public space, a local centre and a public park. There would be space for community use and vitality seemed a central theme and there would be public realm quality to die for. There were meetings and consultations and enthusiastic talk of small retail units and artisan workshops. The community were enthusiastic and could really buy into this. Let’s get cracking, what were we waiting for? Any concerns could easily be assuaged because we had a Local Plan that protected residential amenity, Edinburgh’s skyline and ensured urban design and the materials used would be of the highest quality and emulate local materials and encourage stone and slate. Oh, what’s not to like?
A Pre Application Notice (PAN) and then a full application was submitted for 2 blocks of flats. Here comes the housing. It is a shame the canal basin is scrapped but it is not economic. Then 2 more applications come in to change the flats into student residences and a third to enlarge the footprint so the public space is lost. We complain all the way but are ignored. Across Fountainbridge, the same process of PAN, full applications for flats and then applications to change to two student blocks takes place.
In another part of the site flats are built but the recession means that they are not so economic so it is agreed with Planning to downgrade the requirements for affordable housing and any contribution from the developers for public realm works and the trams. We complain but cannot obviously see any of the documents because they are commercially sensitive. Oh, and the proposed crèche was scrapped and some of the flats were converted to short stay lets for Hen Nights.
More PANs and then full applications arrive in fairly quick succession. Two large student blocks are built and the community use is removed by another application. A school is being built which needs the land of the public park. A hotel is about to be built. An aparthotel is going through the planning stage and a further student block is at the PAN stage. So far we have no long term housing on the site of the masterplan and a transient population of thousands.
Still there is a piece of land left which is about a seventh of the original area. A new master plan is drawn up for this land and a local campaigning group gets involved. The Plan mentions housing, a new community, living and working in the area. There will be new water space. There will be space for the arts, community use and vitality seems a central theme. There were meetings and consultations and enthusiastic talk of small retail units and artisan workshops. The community were enthusiastic and could really buy into this. Let’s get cracking, what are we waiting for? Any concerns can easily be assuaged because we have a Local Plan that protects residential amenity, Edinburgh’s skyline and ensures urban design and the materials used will be of the highest quality and emulate local materials and encourage stone and slate. Oh, what’s not to like? Just a minute, am I repeating myself? We will have to wait and see if this truncated plan is enacted.
Virtually nothing in the original master plan has been realised. The reality is that we have no crèche, canal basin, public space, local centre, the park is reduced in size and the community building and uses have been abolished. There are no artisan workshops and no small retail units except Tesco Metros and Sainsbury’s Locals.
Where did we as a community and Community Council go wrong? We engaged at every stage, we made representations and lobbied. However we had no effect on the outcomes of these many developments over many years. Were we just naïve to believe that we could make a difference? The community had a vision but the reality has been determined by the market. The profitability of housing for sale waned and the profits were better in student housing, hotels and aparthotels. The next phase is starting where high cost housing for rent appears profitable so that is what we will get.
The only conclusion to be drawn is that the current planning system pays lip service to community involvement. There is a massive need to introduce more democracy into the planning system so that the people who live and work in an area can feel some ownership of the changes and developments that take place amongst and around them.
That is why I have joined Planning Democracy.