Planning Edinburgh’s future

The “City Plan 2030” matters for Edinburgh’s future, argues Chas Booth.

The planning process can sometimes be dull but, as a recent furore over the loss of trees in Princes Street gardens shows, it can occasionally raise considerable public anger. Most often, the anger erupts when the planning process gets decisions wrong. So how do we ensure the city gets more decisions right?

In Scotland, the system of planning, also known as land use planning, is called ‘plan-led’. This means, in theory, that the first thing a developer should do is to check the plan to ensure their development complies with it. In other words, if I want to build a house on a bit of land, and it’s allocated for housing, that’s fine. If it’s allocated as green space, forget it. That’s the theory, at any rate.

What is that plan? In Edinburgh, it’s called the Local Development Plan or LDP. There are three elements to the plan: a map, which identifies proposal sites and allocates the land use for each area of the city; a list of policies, which any development should comply with, and a list of proposals, which are allocations for specific developments or uses, including on green space, transport, infrastructure and much more.

And, because the system is plan-led, what goes into the plan becomes extremely important. If the plan is done well, it can direct the right sort of buildings and development to the right places to ensure that people are supported to live happy, sustainable lives. It can ensure that we have warm, dry affordable homes where people need them. That places of work and homes are not too far apart, and journeys between them can be made using sustainable travel: walking, cycling and public transport. And the plan should help to deliver other council objectives too, for example on cutting air pollution. What it certainly shouldn’t do is contradict existing initiatives, such as the City Centre Transformation project to create a more people-friendly city.

The last Edinburgh LDP was agreed in 2016, but already the council has started the process of preparing the next one, which will come into force in 2021 and will be called the City Plan 2030. So far there have been discussions with community groups, some business groups and councillors on the general principles and outlines of the plan. The next stage will be to go to an 8-week public consultation on what should go into the plan, with the publication of the ‘Main Issues Report’. That should happen in early 2019.

In order to arrive at a plan that reflects the needs and wishes of communities across the city, it is extremely important that as many people as possible respond to the consultations on both the Main Issues Report and City Plan 2030. The end result will affect us all, even if we do not know it yet, so please take the time to read the documents and say what you think as its often too late, a couple of years down the line, when a proposal comes forward that you don’t like. Or even worse, that the development we need does not happen at all.

One of the crucial decisions which must be made in the plan is how many new homes will be built, and where? Quite often this comes down to a debate about brownfield versus greenfield – in other words, should it be on land which previously had buildings on it, or land which has not been built on before? This is a vital discussion, but I believe there is a bigger question which needs to be answered before we address that.

And that bigger question is: what should our plan do? What vision should it set out? What is the big picture here? And is the big picture consistent with other programmes and initiatives?

The biggest picture of all is climate change. The plan may be labelled for 2030 but it will be defining the buildings and land uses that make up the city in 2080 and beyond. The leading authority on climate change, the IPCC, has recently warned that the world has 12 years – by coincidence, by 2030 – to put in place the kind of transformative changes that help head off the worst forms of climate breakdown. So radical new approaches to active travel and mass transit, zero-carbon homes and workplaces, decentralised services and economies which rediscover the value of re-use and repair. If City Plan 2030 cannot embrace that, then it has missed the point.

That is why I have submitted the motion below to Planning Committee on 12 December 2018

Green Motion – Cutting climate change emissions in the City Plan 2030


1) Notes the recent publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) ‘Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5C’, which found that limiting global warming to 1.5C is still possible but requires rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented change in all aspects of society;
2) Notes that under section 44 of the Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2009, “a public body must, in exercising its functions, act in the way best calculated to contribute to the delivery of the targets [set out in the Act]”;
3) Notes that the Scottish Government recently introduced the Climate Change (Emissions Reduction Targets) (Scotland) Bill, which sets emissions reduction targets of 66% by 2030, 70% by 2040 and 90% by 2050, though some climate scientists and commentators call for more ambitious targets;
4) Therefore committee agrees that the forthcoming City Plan 2030 should set out policies and proposals for achieving significant reductions in climate change emissions in line with nationally and council-agreed targets; and the Main Issues Report (MIR) should consult on how those emissions reductions should be achieved.

But a sustainable city must also be a liveable city, so we want to ensure that our city is affordable for people to live in. And that means truly affordable. Too often we talk about ‘affordable housing’ without being clear what we mean. So let’s see more socially rented homes, which is what most people understand to be affordable. And the city must be affordable to live in too – to travel around, to shop and socialise, for example. And, on a different tack, is the importance of engagement – I want to see as many people as possible input into the plan, to ensure it has the widest possible buy-in from residents.

If the council gets the overall principles and the vision of the City Plan 2030 right, then it becomes a lot easier to get the other big decisions in it right as well. If we agree that a fundamental aim of the plan must be to cut carbon emissions, then the decision over brownfield versus greenfield becomes easier. If we decide that a fundamental aim of spatial planning is to reduce the need to travel and encourage more active lives, then making decisions about transport infrastructure becomes a lot easier.

The process of creating the next City Plan won’t be an easy one – there are many competing demands on our limited space, and some powerful and vested financial interests seeking to influence the process. But if we get the principles right from the start – if we state clearly that our City Plan must put a sustainable and affordable city first,  then the rest of the process might be slightly easier.