Thursday, 14 August 2008

EU Probe into Caltongate

THE EU today became the latest organisation to launch an investigation into the handling of the controversial £300 million Caltongate plans.

Architectural historian David Black, who sparked a similar European investigation over the Holyrood parliament building, has succeeded in persuading officials in Brussels to consider his complaint against the city council.The move comes just weeks after the UN heritage watchdog Unesco launched an investigation into Edinburgh's World Heritage status, amid concerns over the impact of the Caltongate development.

Mr Black a founder of The Old Town Association - raised a number of issues in his complaint, and claimed competition laws were broken in the sale of a patch of land for the massive project.

He also claimed that planning convenor Jim Lowrie breached rules by prematurely commenting on the scheme in the Evening News - although the Standards Commission for Scotland later cleared him of this.

After five months, the office of the Secretariat-General of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, has ruled Mr Black's complaints admissible. Although no comment has been made on the validity of the allegations, officials will now decide whether to start an "infringement procedure" – which could lead all the way to the European courts.

Mr Black said this means the Caltongate development could still be scrapped, although sources close to the project believe this to be highly unlikely.

"I think the council is very vulnerable ... these decisions cannot stand, and this could be an incredible outcome as a point of law of this.

Five years ago, Mr Black lodged a complaint with the European Commission over the £414m Scottish Parliament project, alleging mismanagement, secrecy and bias. The Commission decided that rules had been broken, although no further action was taken because the Scottish Executive had taken steps to prevent a repeat.

One of his key allegations regarding Caltongate centres around a patch of council-owned land, which Mr Black believes the council supplied to developer Mountgrange for around £5m without offering it on the open market.

A council spokesman said: "The council's financial involvement relates to commercial agreements on property which have been reported openly to the council.

"It is routine for public and privately-owned land to be taken together for the sake of developments that benefit the city.

"We are obliged to raise market value on property we sell and we are comfortable that we have done that.

"An official from the Secretariat-General said the Commission will "consider (the] complaint in the light of the applicable Community law", but warned that this did not mean an infringement procedure would necessarily be opened.
Evening News 13th Aug 08
questions that demand answers on Caltongate

And there is news on Caltongate Architect Malcolm Fraser -
Award–winning doesn’t mean job winning
Regular readers will know I have a thing about the ephemerality of awards, believing firmly that architects are only as good as their next job, not their last one. Today’s announcement in the Scotsman that Malcolm Fraser’s practice is to shed a quarter of its workforce (a far more dramatic headline than simply saying that a total of eight jobs have been lost) is peppered with phrases like ‘award winning’ and ‘high profile’ and shows clearly that when the going gets tough, a wider but generally unspoken suspicion of the merits of architectural awards and the buildings selected to receive them is quickly turned into a pejorative headline.

Quite why Malcolm finds himself singled out for a half page of negative publicity is open to question – newspapers in Scotland don’t exactly carry regular features on matters architectural and while there are plenty of practices struggling at the moment, its hardly the sort of thing they issue press releases about – especially when the far bigger story is of massive, and potentially long-lasting, job losses throughout the construction industry in Scotland.

This is particularly so at a time when Fraser’s office has just completed what is arguably its best project in years – the exquisite new home for the Dovecot Studios within the envelope of the former Infirmary Street Baths in Edinburgh’s Old Town. No doubt the project will in due course receive accolades and baubles from fellow professionals, but that is no consolation to the eight people now seeking alternative employment.

Now, if only bona fide recent awards were to carry points that counted on pre-qualification questionnaires for new projects, we might see some quantifiable benefit to those practices most consistently trying to deliver built excellence. In the meantime, however, good luck to Fraser and his team in securing new commissions, and to the redundant staff in finding new employment. Article by Peter Wilson in Architecture Scotland