People in glass houses….

Gavin Corbett celebrates real community engagement in the planning system – and laments when it breaks down.

I spent today in the glass-house – both literally and metaphorically.  Literally, because it was in one of the empty offices at Fountainbridge – one of those with plate glass throughout – kindly offered for the day by the owners of Quay 2 at Fountainbridge.  And metaphorically, because it was for a session with the Glasshouse – a charity which helps community groups through challenges of urban design.

The day was hosted by Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative, a community group with whom I have been involved since summer of 2011.  The focus was working with community members, professionals and others to distil our aspirations for the major former brewery site between Fountainbridge and the Union Canal.

The site is not a complete blank canvas – university residences are going up at the west end and the new Boroughmuir High School is also being placed at that end.  At the east end of the site, some of the land is owned by RBS.  However, most of the site (of around 6 hectares) is owned by the Council and so is an opportunity to really deliver something of which the city can be proud, or, as city design leader, Ricardo Marini, summed up – a unique opportunity to show that Scotland can get place-making, the creation of a new neighbourhood, right.

The day was absorbing and threw up many themes and ideas.  Among them are:

  • A consensus that the site needed to open up the canal as an asset.
  • That mixed use sites – housing, small business and retail – are best.
  • That the density needs to reflect the high density of the surrounding neighbourhood.
  • That the character needs to reflect the industrial heritage of the area.

That the day was a success is testament to the hard-work of the community and a determination to be treated as equal stakeholders with something important to say.  Long may it prosper.

The contrast with Craighouse, at the other end of my ward, could not be more stark.  For some months now, we have been promised a major planning application which would seek to protect the existing grade A listed buildings but also, controversially, seek permission to build new homes as well.  However, in the absence of that application the discussion has recently focused in great detail on a decade-old planning consent for an arts building and whether the digging of a trench constitutes the effective sustaining of that consent.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of that process I cannot help feel that so much energy is being spent on a war of attrition when I am sure everyone would much rather be on the path which is being pioneered at Fountainbridge.  Developers have much to learn on the art of community engagement, it seems.