New development at Craighouse

Green councillors, Gavin Corbett and Melanie Main cast a critical eye over development plans at Craighouse in south-west Edinburgh

For over a year now the future of the Craighouse site has been a major issue in both of our wards, which share a boundary on the slopes of Easter Craiglockhart Hill, into which Craighouse nestles. The former Napier University buildings and the green spaces and the woodlands have a unique place in the hearts of thousands of people in the area: from those who walk in the grounds to those who simply admire the open spaces and wonderful architecture from a distance. Craighouse is one of Edinburgh’s Seven Hills, views towards and from the site are protected and its future is important as part of the heritage and landscape of the city.

When Napier University announced that the site no longer fitted its future plans a period of uncertainty began. The uncertainty was heightened when it became clear, in March 2011, that a new consortium had been formed to develop the site – the Craighouse Partnership (TCP), comprising the university itself (which stands to make a hefty additional sum if planning consent is granted), developer Sundial Properties and Mountgrange Real Estate Opportunity Fund which funded the acquisition and which is managed by Mountgrange Investment Management. The name Mountgrange has been forever associated with the failed Caltongate scheme in the Old Town and, for many people, not one to inspire confidence.

Over the last year TCP has consulted on and evolved proposals to renovate the 7 A-listed buildings on the site and to build new homes. On 12 November 2012 a planning application was finally submitted – for 64 flats in the existing buildings and 89 new homes – and the discussion about what is best for Craighouse shifts up a gear.

Let’s start with some positives. The plans as submitted show that the developer has listened to some of the feedback over the last year. The number of new homes is a bit fewer than in earlier proposals. The orchard and the sloping terraced lawn are shown as publicly accessible land, albeit hemmed in by houses. Assurances about continued public access to the hill have been made.

We also respect the views of those who say that they are worried about the prospects for the old buildings. If this land were simply green land, there would be no debate, no question of any development happening (at least not that we could support). But the unique charm of Craighouse is the mix of the old buildings and the green space. At some point a viable use of those existing buildings needs to be secured, lest they deteriorate. The developers argue that this is why they need to build new homes – to offset higher maintenance and development costs of older buildings. This argument – so-called “enabling development” – has little precedent in Scotland and requires the developers to show that there are no other options for renovating the older buildings, such that present planning policy should be set aside.

And we recognise the enthusiasm of one of the project’s drivers. William Gray-Muir of Sundial Properties certainly appears to be a professional who loves old buildings and relishes the challenge of getting to grips with the restoration of Craighouse’s properties. From a PR point of view, TCP have been wise to have him front so many of the meetings. His enthusiasm may well win over people in the community who are wavering.

But TCP is not Sundial, nor William Gray-Muir. And the Craighouse project is not just about restoration of outstanding old buildings.

Let’s cut to the chase. The bulk of the project is to build new homes on a site which current planning policy presumes shall not be developed. TCP knew that when they bought the site and the price presumably reflected that constraint.

In plain terms, the development of new homes is against City of Edinburgh policy.

And what kind of new homes? An eight storey block of flats at the highest point of the development and clearly visible for miles around. Box-like buildings which look more like the belong more in a business park than in an iconic site. The weirdest-looking building stuck in front of New Craig, the architectural centre-piece of Craighouse. Houses which loom large in the main entrance to the site and all but surround the orchard space where countless children have rolled eggs or sledged.

There will be residents’ parking for well over 300 cars. Trees will be chopped down and, while other trees are to be planted, it will be a long, long time before they start to screen the development in a way that the planning submission illustrates. What does that mean for the wildlife and protected habitats in the meantime?

And at what cost? TCP has made much of the claim that they are only building on 3.5% of the site. But take a look at the final page of the estate management strategy. This shows graphically how much of the land will be in private ownership. There may be access agreed through this area onto the green spaces beyond but how long will it take before owners, who have paid heftily for the privilege of living at Craighouse, start to resent walkers using their suburban street as a through-route? Boundary walls of 2 metres will surround homes and gardens, giving a real closed-in feel to the site.

One of the many merits of Craighouse just now is how porous it is, how freely people can (and do) walk through it to link onto any number of formal and informal paths. That will go.

The developers have put forward welcome proposals to hand over much of the remaining estate – the woods and the upper slopes – into public and eventual community ownership, in an implicit recognition that private ownership cannot guarantee the public access which is so cherished. But they are clear that this, and a public park at the centre of the sloping lawns, are only on the table if planning consent is granted. So they are highly conditional and aspirational.

But, anyway, all of this is just the paperwork. A critical question is whether the planned development will ever be built – whatever the plan. After all, it would not be the first time in which land has been bought, planning consent secured, and then sold on at a much higher value.  This form of speculation is why the Greens support land value taxation but, in its absence for now, there is always a risk of successive owners speculating in this way.

We don’t know whether that might happen here. The choice of Mountgrange as a funder in this case is not one that has inspired confidence. After all, Caltongate still remains a hole in the ground. And even if the development does start on site, what is to stop the funder saying “we have a cash flow issue – we may, after all, need to build all the new homes first and get them occupied and leave the expensive bit – the renovation of the old buildings – until later”? The City Council can seek all sorts of commitments on development phasing that it likes (and we have already raised this) but the reality is that once the bulldozers are in and the trees are ripped up it is very hard to insist on calling development to a halt.

So, again, there are consequences whatever is done. If the Council says no to the planning application it is possible that the buildings will lie empty for some time (albeit that the owners will still be responsible for them). Perhaps the site will be sold and some other purchaser might come along with ideas that are no better and may be worse. That is a risk. Since Napier University has not revealed the scope of the alternative bids for the site we cannot tell how significant that risk is.

But there is risk wherever we look. There is also risk that Craighouse becomes so different that it is just, well, not Craighouse any more. From what we have seen that is a very real risk.

So has the case for building new homes to offset the costs of renovating the old homes (“enabling development“, again) been made so convincingly, so overwhelmingly, that we should set aside planning policy and a whole raft of protections, to allow it to proceed?

We don’t think so.

Gavin Corbett is Green councillor for Fountainbridge / Craiglockhart and Melanie Main is Green councillor for Meadows / Morningside.

Further Information

Residents have until 21 December 2012 to make their views known. There are three sets of applications but click on this 12/04007/FUL as the main one. Remember that planning applications are decided on what is known as “material considerations” so if you want your views to be considered fully you should focus on matters such as: how well the development fits with local policy; how it looks (size, height, layout etc); impact on the environment; how it fits into the existing landscape; and transport; among many others. See here for more information on material considerations.

There is a display in Morningside Library set up by Morningside Community Council. If you are a resident in Morningside, the Community Council would also like to hear your views and has a residents questionnaire.

Craiglockhart Community Council is holding a special Craighouse meeting on Tuesday, 27th Nov at 7.30pm for Craiglockhart residents only at the Craiglockhart Campus of Edinburgh Napier University.