Craighouse: the latest twists and turns

So what is going on at Craighouse? asks Gavin Corbett.

A few weeks back, I was asked to write an short piece on Craighouse, on Easter Craiglockhart Hill, for a community newsletter. Since the absolute deadline for the article was the same date (17 March) as the Planning Committee was due to take a decision on a major planning application there, I prepared two alternative articles – one where it was accepted, the other where it was rejected.

I had not anticipated a third option; which is that the developers, Mountagrange and Sundial, should withdraw their plans for a second time, before 17 March, with a promise to come back with version 3 some time after May (in fact it will be version 4 if we were to count the various proposals that were discussed in 2011-12 before the first application was submitted). But that is, indeed, what has happened, with consultation expected just before the summer, and a best guess at a Planning Committee hearing currently 3 September.

Now, of course, there is a lot more at stake here than my lost articles. Craighouse, with its A-listed 16th and 19th century properties, and its swathes of open grass and mixed woodland, is one of the truly special places of Edinburgh, in a city that has plenty of competition for that accolade.

The developers, together with former owners, Napier University, are collectively the Craighouse Partnership. They argue that, in order to revamp the existing historic buildings into 66 flats or houses, they need to be able build new housing on the site, to balance out the development and long term maintenance costs associated with the site and older buildings. This is in spite of the developers’ own figures showing that a profit of just over £1 million could be made from renovation alone. However, in today’s casino-like, high risk, high return property market, such a return is, apparently, not remotely enough to raise finance.

Hence the second plan, which had been submitted was for 125 new homes as well, using some of the existing built-upon land but also eating into the open space; the habitats;, the views; the setting of the historic buildings and a raft of other planning protections.

In short, what was proposed was clearly unacceptable and over a thousand new objections were submitted, bringing the total number of representations to well over 2,000. I’m relieved, then, that these plans have been withdrawn.  The developer is now suggesting a new approach which removes some of the costs in underground car-parking and finishings which, it is argued, would then allow the quantity of new homes to be reduced.

I’ll reserve judgement until I see any new plans, probably in 3 months time. All I’ll say for now is that the quantity of new homes will need reduced an awful lot to meet the aspirations of the community and we may simply be trading one form of deeply unpopular proposals for another.

Because there is an increasingly wide credibility gap for the developer. I’ve said in the past that I recognised the genuine passion of Sundial’s William Gray Muir for restoration of historic homes. I don’t think anyone who meets him can fail to detect that enthusiasm. But Craighouse has become, by quantity, a new-build development on some of the most protected land in the city, with the older properties now making up only a third of the housing on the site.  A conservation shortfall (if, indeed, there is one) of a few million is being used to justify a development of almost £100 million. That feels like a long way out of Sundial’s customary portfolio and a lot more to do with bedfellows, Mountgrange, about whom views are much more sceptical.

Add to that mix, the sense that this process, which has been going on for the best part of 3 years now, is infinitely elastic as to the number of times the developers can go back and forth with plans. The more battle-hardened members of the community liken it to a war of attrition in which local residents eventually weary of submitting views and development goes ahead in the vacuum that is left.

Now, there is a case for dialogue. Even if the planning service had said two years ago that the planning protections on the site were inviolable red lines, the developer would still be entitled to make an application and the Planning Committee would still have to come to a decision. And the risk is still that it would have left us in the same stalemate as regards the condition and future deterioration of the historic buildings. Almost everyone I have spoken to understands that risk although there is huge variation in opinion as to the scale of the risk and how to handle it.

So dialogue with the developer has been reasonable. But it also has limits. Otherwise it simply stretches already taut credibility to beyond breaking point. That is why it is important that the Planning Service has said that this next round of plans is the last under the current application. In my view, it really is three strikes and you are out.

Beyond that, we are into new territory. It may then be time to go back to the drawing board, to seek to re-establish trust in the process; in a revamped vision for Craighouse which secures a long term use for the historic buildings without savaging the rest of the environment which helps make it so special.