Re-imagining Redford Barracks

Gavin Corbett argues that MoD withdrawal from Redford Barracks is a major opportunity which the city should seize.

The Ministry of Defence announced in 2016 that it planned to pull out of Redford Barracks in the Colinton area of Edinburgh. The scheduled closure date is 2022 [UPDATE: on 1.3.19 this planned closure date is now 2025]. Built at the start of the twentieth century, the barracks are currently home to the army (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders). The barracks also host the army school for bagpipes and drumming.

I’m the councillor for the Fountainbridge-Craiglockhart area of Edinburgh and the boundary of my ward lies at the front gate of the barracks. The barracks themselves sit within Colinton-Fairmilehead ward. So, naturally, I am very interested in what happens to the site. The army has been there for over 100 years and families stationed there are part of the local community and local schools. For the soldiers and their families settled there, it’s an uncertain time so I certainly hope that they are being kept up to date by the MoD.

The city council has set up a working group to prepare for 2025. The group has met twice, the most recent of which was a visit to the barracks in May 2018. Despite having lived in the area for almost 30 years, I’d never been through the front gate. So I was intrigued to see what lay behind the high wire fences.

The first thing I’d say is that the site is huge. 32.2 hectares (or 80 acres if you like). That is the equivalent of 64 football pitches.

The second observation is that it has a lot of old stuff on it. There are no less than 80 B-listed structures on the site. That includes the imposing barracks themselves, but also the former stables used by the cavalry (which would make fantastic workspaces) and the parade ground itself.

The third thing that struck me is how under-used it all seems. It’s not that there is an air of neglect; the buildings look well-maintained on first impressions. It just feels mainly empty.

So that makes me think. It is clear that some councillors on the working group see the withdrawal by the army as a matter of regret. The local MSP Gordon Macdonald recently wrote to the press urging the MoD to think again.

Really? Edinburgh is a city where the population is growing, where large numbers of people leave each year to live in the wider Lothians, Fife or Falkirk, with an impact on strained transport systems. The city is short on housing land and yet here is a large site, well within the city boundary, but under-occupied and, for security reasons, sealed off from the wider neighbourhood most of the time.

Put it another way. If that 80 acre site were a blank canvas and the city had to decide what was the optimal use, would it conclude that an army barracks was best? I doubt it. So, rather than seeing MoD withdrawal as something being done to us, against our will, why not commit to it 100% and see it as a massive opportunity?

Of course, Redford Barracks is not a blank canvas. Any plans for the future will have to respect those 80 B-listed structures. Alternative plans will need to reflect community views about the area – the mix of homes, workspaces, green and open space – and how it links the area better to active travel, schools, health and community services.

These are all exciting opportunities, in my view. But there is also a tension. The MoD will want to maximise the capital receipt for the site, so that it can re-invest in its remaining estate. But the value of the land is entirely dependent on the use to which the site is put. If the future use were to be the growing of onions the value would be less than if it were to be home to luxury skyscrapers.

I don’t think there is much chance of either of the above land uses prevailing. But, just over the Craiglockhart hills, the Craighouse development is a perfect example of how an absurdly high land value has driven conflict and inappropriate development.

Of course, that concern would much be less if we had proper joined-up government: where UK government might agree to transfer the land at an agreed value to another arm of government – local government – to lead on its future use. That would be entirely rational but I see less prospect of that happening if there is a bidding war on the open market.

So, what needs to happen next? Firstly, there needs to be a process of engaging the nearby communities in the opportunities in and expectations of the site. My own experience at the Fountainbridge brewery sites is that if community involvement happens early and meaningfully enough, then there will be a mutually beneficial partnership. I understand that the community engagement will kick off this autumn.

Secondly, and following from the community engagement, there needs to be a detailed planning brief which will shape any future masterplan and hence site value. This is too big and important a site to be left to a developer-led process.

And, finally, there needs to be a genuine commitment to affordable housing. At the most recent Craiglockhart Community Council there was a shared concern that the area is almost a no-go zone for people on lower or middle-incomes, right up to professions like teachers, carers or nurses. I agree with that 100%.

With the right process and the right vision the Redford Barracks site could be a wonderful new neighbourhood for south west Edinburgh. Let’s get on the front foot.