Friday, 16 April 2010

Edinburgh Council Face Legal Action Over Caltongate

Edinburgh faces legal action over Caltongate developmentEuropean commission rules council illegally sold off area on Royal Mile at the heart of city's World Heritage site

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The Guardian 16th April 2010
Edinburgh council faces legal action after the European commission ruled it illegally sold land at the centre of an international row over the protection of the city's historic buildings, the Guardian can reveal.

The Scottish capital has already been criticised by Unesco, the United Nations culture agency, after the council approved plans for a £300m hotel and offices development at Caltongate on the medieval Royal Mile, which lies at the heart of the city's World Heritage site.

Senior council officials have been told that the European commission has decided it breached a number of European laws by selling the Caltongate site to the developer Mountgrange for £5m without putting the land – a former bus depot which sits next to Waverley station – out for sale on the open market.

In a letter passed to the Guardian, an official in the internal markets directorate discloses that the commission will start infringement proceedings for breaching regulations on public procurement, as well as breaking rules on equal treatment, non-discrimination and transparency. Under European law the proceedings are formally taken against the UK government.

The action follows a complaint from an architectural writer and historian, David Black, a founder of the Old Town Trust. "The mismanagement of Edinburgh is becoming quite legendary," he said.

"Edinburgh's reputation is already being trashed by these people, they're just incompetent."

The Caltongate proposal has been bitterly opposed by residents, architectural heritage groups and politicians. They have complained about the demolition of listed buildings, the eviction of families in affected properties and the designs of planned hotel and businesses.

Unesco's World Heritage committee said in 2008 that it "deeply regrets" the council's decision to approve the project, warning that it would ruin the medieval area's unique streetscape, damaging the Old Town's "integrity". It sent inspectors to investigate the project and several other major developments in the city.

The site is now up for sale by HBOS after Mountgrange went into administration last year, owing the bank £73m. Six new developers are said to be competing to buy the site.

George Kerevan, a former Labour councillor who is standing in Edinburgh East for the Scottish National party, said the legal action should make the council and HBOS pause for thought, halt the sale and redesign the entire project.

"I was never happy with scheme: it ripped so much of the fabric of the Old Town away," he said. "This EU intervention allows us the chance to rethink the scheme in a way that involves the local community."

A council spokesman said: "The council has always paid due regard to its legal obligations but recognises the European commission's right to investigate the matter and is currently preparing a response. With the site currently in the hands of administrators we fully expect to enter into a new agreement once a preferred bidder has been announced."