Edinburgh Council has had great difficulties coming to terms with the new Planning Act. Their understanding seems to be that developers are good and communities are bad. Repeatedly the Convener of the Planning Committee, Liberal Democrat Councillor Jim Lowry has moved to curtail the community’s right to speak at the Planning Committee. He has strengthened officials position. And those officials are aggressively pro-developer.
Today the Planning Committee is considering a string of proposals to weaken the Community say in Planning. Prominent amongst the latest proposals is one to limit Ward Councillors to only 3 minutes on any planning proposal. Communities have already been shut out of the Planning Committee. As it is the Planning Officers get to speak in favour of a development for up to 45 minutes. This means that any community objections get 7% of the time that could be devoted to singing the praises of a development.
Added to this is a proposal to ensure that there are no representations made by anyone other than the officials on site visits. Since officials are obliged to go through a long process of negotiating any planning application they tend to have been well briefed by developers. This will compound any exclusion of the community from the process. Often Officers will have taken an assertion by the developer at face value, and only a community representative or Ward Councillor could point out an erroneous assertion.
Portobello has been on the brunt of several of these decisions. The first was the Portobello North West Masterplan – in principle a good idea. But the Officers in league with the developers contrived to propose such a terrible plan that 400 people turned out to express their dissatisfaction. The then Head of Planning was pretty surprised to find that so many people disapproved. I can well imagine that the junior officials responsible felt rather embarrassed by all of this. The meeting was enough to ensure that the masterplan was sorted out.
Some months later Portobello was subjected to an Officer’s decision to recommend approval of the proposed Waste Transfer site. It was obvious to anyone that this proposal was totally inappropriete. The Planning Committee at that time allowed the community to speak. We were able to make our case. The Councillors agreed. The Officers didn’t. I spoke on behalf of the Community Council. The Planning Officer sitting opposite me shook her head and tutted as I spoke. It was pretty clear how much she valued community input. In this case about as much as she valued professional behaviour. When Viridor appealed the Reporters from the Scottish Government agreed that this development was inappropriate.
To put this proposal in context, it was to be a giant building overshadowing a conservation area. There would be noisy and unpleasant waste transfer going on up to 24 hours a day. The 900 lorry movements would have clogged Portobello’s streets, endangering schoolchildren as they went to and came from school. The development would have destroyed Portobello, and garnered no support in the community. The Planning Officers clearly believe that anyone with money to develop a site and very expensive suits should be allowed to do whatever they like, whatever the consequences.
Following this, Councillor Lowry moved to prevent the community speaking at hearings. This meant that a proposed residential development was given the go-ahead after a Planning Officer eulogised it for 45 minutes. Three weeks later the site of the proposed development was overwhelmed during a storm by waves that came to a level above what will be the ground floor, and endangering the first floor dwellings. The Council will very likely have to spend substantial money on coastal defences to allow the developer to make his money on this site. To add insult to injury there will be no social housing on this site.
Portobello faces a major development on the Scottish Power site. It is imperative that the development is the right one. Cutting even half an hour off the length of a Planning Committee meeting is a very high price to pay for what may be a disastrous development for Portobello. But Councillor Lowry and the fanatically pro-development Officers will no doubt be champing at the bit to ensure that the Developer gets whatever he wants. After all, he has some very nice suits.
We need to ensure that the Planning system meets the needs of communities as well as those of developers. It is unfortunate that Councillor Lowry and the City of Edinburgh Council Planning Department seem content to silence communities in the Process. Their bunker behaviour will only result in worse decisions.
UPDATE: The Planning Committee decided to defer discussion of the report for 2 or 3 months and will consult on the proposals. Thanks to all the pressure from communities.