Of biscuits and buildings

Whether or not climate change is to blame, the midsummer weather this week past was more like the monsoon season than anything I remember from my childhood (but maybe I have just forgotten that it was wet in June then too).

Whatever.  It was not weather to welcome the Scottish Planning Reporter to Slateford in Edinburgh as part of his investigation into a plan to build on a former biscuit factory site.  Developers AMA have twice now submitted plans to the Council to build accommodation for over 200 students plus family housing at the rear of the site.  Twice they have been refused and this is also the second appeal.

I don’t want to dwell here on the pros and cons of the development.  I have already submitted my views to the Reporter arguing that the Council came to the right decision to refuse planning permission, for reasons of appearance, scale and impact on neighbouring properties.

And my reservations have nothing to do with students.  Further along the same road there is much much larger student block, next to a cinema complex, with another mooted on the same site and a further block being built across the road.  As a neighbourhood we already do a great deal to welcome students in purpose-built residences, recognising the critical role that higher education has in the fabric of the city.  And that is not even counting the many students in privately-rented flats in the area.

It is just that the Slateford site, in my view, is not the right place to have such a large development.  It is slap bang in the middle of one of Edinburgh’s ten historic “colony settlements”, product of a radical self-help housing movement in the late Victorian era.  Only last week, the Planning Committee gave belated recognition to just how unique the colonies are and agreed to begin consultation on applying consistent conservation status to them all.

The nearby Shandon colonies and those at the bottom of Dalry Road already have some degree of protection – those at Slateford do not.  So we could have the strange situation of the Reporter approving a development which utterly changes the character of an area which is on the cusp of having protections applied to preserve that character.

And I am not just talking about physical appearance.  The varying design of the colony houses provide for a mix of households and that is what creates such a rich texture of community.  The site would be perfect, I think, for more family housing, some element of affordable homes for first time buyers or new households and, yes, even some provision, on a smaller scale, for students.  The local residents association has worked with architects and designers to sketch out what an exciting alternative plan could look like – after all, no-one really wants a disused factory forever.

I know that the local residents are reasonable people.  I am told, from a reliable source, that the developers are a reasonable bunch of people too.  So what is it about our planning system that puts parties at such odds with each other?  If our planning system were really – and I mean really – charged with facilitating dialogue would we always reach such an impasse that we need external visits from planning experts on a wet day in late June?