Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Saving Edinburgh Continues

The Future Haymarket

IAN ROSS questions the change being foisted upon Scotland's capital

I BELIEVE we are now in a crisis in my home city of Edinburgh as bad, if not worse, than the destruction and damage that took place in the 1960s. Vested interests are being given free rein to exploit every available site. Now even Unesco is worried about the status of our World Heritage Site. I believe that the plans now approved and those in the planning process are such that Edinburgh no longer deserves the status granted by Unesco.

We hear time and again from those in positions of influence that Edinburgh is losing out on investment to Manchester and Glasgow. Good for them – Edinburgh does not need it. Only those with a benefit to gain seem to be worried.

We are destroying the very essence of the city by over-development and a rush to make it bigger. I see no benefit for the ordinary citizen. Extra people will not pay for the upgrading of schools – they will mean more children requiring schooling, more traffic, etc.

The supposition being put out is that if we fight against these developments Edinburgh will lose out – well I hope we do. Will Edinburgh become a less wonderful place to live if we do not have Caltongate, if we chuck out the plans for a 17-storey hotel at Haymarket, if we tell Forth Ports we do not want their nine villages, or if we return the St James Centre to something that is an asset to the city, not another eyesore to replace the current one? The Scotsman 8th July

New wave of 'philistines' poses a major threat to the capital's historic skyline, claims DAVID BLACK

Caltongate Developer Manish Chande (right) with his partner in crime Martin Myers

THOSE of us with long memories might just recall the early Seventies, when Edinburgh University's firebrand student rector, a certain Gordon Brown, established "the rector's working party on planning".The shared objective among enlightened citizens at that point was to scupper the manic demolition proposals which the philistine triumvirate of university bigwigs, property plutocrats and a right-of-centre "progressive" (no irony intended) town council had drawn up a decade earlier for the historic Southside of Edinburgh.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown when a young student
Among other things, Brown and his troublesome cabal produced a couple of polemical booklets under the aegis of the Edinburgh University Student Publications Board. The Forgotten Southside and The Unmaking of Edinburgh may not have been classics of the printmaker's art, and the standard of spelling left something to be desired, as contributor Robin Cooke (sic) discovered, but they caught and reflected a growing public mood and helped to turn the tide in a historic city that was, in a very real sense, under attack.
As a result the Buchanan Road proposals, the university's 1963 comprehensive development area plans, the flagrant misuse of the Section 13 (Dangerous Buildings) notice, and an equally wanton disregard for the legislation which had been enacted to protect our listed buildings were placed beyond the reach of the scorched-earth planning Ba'athists and their philistine henchmen.

A new age of holistic urban harmony was ushered in as the Crown Estate commissioners spent some of their North Sea oil gains on the restoration of Nicolson Street, housing associations translated derelict tenements into good-quality homes, a Georgian church scheduled for demolition became a community centre and another nearby became home to the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.

Saved - The Queens Hall
The crowning achievement, perhaps, was when the establishment saw the error of its bad old ways and delivered a volte-face by declaring both the Southside and the Old Town outstanding conservation areas, clearing the way for central Edinburgh's designation as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Ah, but we were so much older then, we're younger than that now! While we all retired from the scene, quietly convinced that the forces of philistinism had been well and truly routed, little did we guess that their discredited remnants would regroup a quarter of a century later, well provisioned by corporate largesse, and ride forth under a gleaming new banner – "The Rebranding of Britain".

Saved - Southside Community Centre
PR whizz-kids softened us up with siren rhetoric about how a city like ours, while it might be cute in a sort of old-fashioned way, really had to move with the times if it was to survive. The choice, we were told, was between "Modernity or Heritage" and this meant that we had to have lots 'n' lots of flashy new-built icons.

The corporates and bureaucrats brought in a selected breed of architects to perpetrate a number of truly awesome aesthetic crimes within the world heritage site, such as the hideous Omni Centre and some daft, upturned Holyrood boats, which were meant to be symbolic of the "New Scotland". Objectors were characterised as the enemies of progress.

There were, of course, some good new buildings. Few would question the dignified urban presence of Saltire Court, or the delightful quirkiness of the Scottish Poetry Library. But, more and more, the desire to squeeze as much revenue-generating floorplate out of a site as possible dictated the outcome as our planners cravenly acquiesced to the increasingly avaricious demands of behemoth developers, while telling the rest of us that we wurnae allowed to have window boxes on a listed building, or whatever.

Let's take a rain check here. Right now, in our elegant capital city, one developer's PR machine is schmoozing us with the idea that Edinburgh's skyline of spires and domes clearly embraces the idea of vertical emphasis, so wouldn't it make sense to erect a skyscraper atop the St James Centre?

Another developer, with the apparent support of the very council which is meant to be protecting our civic virtue, intends to tear down listed buildings in the Old Town and erect a bloated sprawl of aesthetically-bankrupt, commercial ticky-tacky that will degrade the historic environment more than anything which was ever proposed in the philistine 1960s.

Vintage Concrete
Back in fashion in all major cities

In this fine city of ours, which should have had a metro years ago, we are extorting money from traders and residents for a tram system that will connect the Gyle with Leith waterfront, doing nothing for most of the citizenry.

We mustn't kid ourselves – this city of ours, this sublime capital of an ancient nation, is under siege, not from the Barbarian hordes of yore, but from the oleaginous blandishments of Mammon and his sticky-fingered minions.

It is, of course, grossly unfair to generalise, for development can be benign, as well as malign, but the evidence of our eyes tells us that the balance is drifting inexorably away from the good towards the bad and the downright ugly. They have the cash and they can afford to fĂȘte and flatter and feed their guff to the media courtesy of an impressive PR juggernaut, which even includes former city councillors.

Former Labour Council Leader Donald Anderson (pro Caltongate when in office now Director of PR ccompany PPSGroup, who Caltongate Developers Mountgrange use)

Isn't it time we did something about this? Obviously, we can't afford to commission a PR company, but we can at least pick up our pens and scribble. If a dozen of us – some old, some new – could each write a 2,000-word essay on the current shenanigans, couldn't we set the tumbrels rolling, or at least encourage a reassessment of our current approach to planning and development?

There is a rich and diverse range of subjects which could be tackled – our PPP hospital, the great tram adventure, the Caltongate scandal, and even the screwing-up of some essentially brilliant ideas, like the over-designed nonsense recently perpetrated in St Andrew's Square Gardens.

The trumpet has sounded! Rise up, ye sons and daughters of Edina, your city needs you at this hour!

Get in touch with The Save Our Old Town Campaign


David J Black is author of All the First Minister's MenThe Scotsman 18th July 08.