It is Time to Change the Planning System

Posted by in November's Magazine

Houses! Flats! Development! Build, build, build! What does anyone need with open spaces, greenery, play parks or suchlike? Pave it over!

From the development at Canonmills Bridge to the houses to be built down by Ocean Terminal, it seems that no open space – or open sky – can be allowed to remain in Edinburgh these days. Not only must it be built on but it must be built high. Flats: towering, lowering, domineering flats. Never just three or four storeys but six or seven at a minimum and every inch of land used to get maximum density and maximum developer profits.


At the time of writing there is a planning application in for a huge development of flats in an area bounded by Commercial Street, Sandport Street and Dock Street. It’ll take away warehouses and industrial units but also a play park owned by the council, which is just about the only green space in the area.

Over in Salamander Place there’s a planning application in place for another enormous development – mainly involving an area where things have been demolished – but also taking in allotments and a bowling green owned by the council. This development would hover right over Leith Links and would see flats tower over a nursery and primary school.

We should, of course, continue to develop Edinburgh, build on those brownfield sites, make good, comfortable homes that people will enjoy living in, but our public spaces – including the streetscapes – are being lost and that doesn’t help anyone. It’s time for a bit of change to give us a better planning system. Some Councillors and council officers will think that’s a call for a revolution and will be having fits of the vapours but we need change.

Firstly, we need homes for people – houses as well as flats, places where children can grow up and families can live in some contentment. We need affordable housing for folk to rent and affordable housing for people to buy – and they need to be spaced out a bit. Communities need open spaces too; places for children to run around, places for adults to relax, somewhere to kick a ball about or walk a dog.

What the council will accept in a planning application needs to change to reflect that. We need less of the pile it high, sell it really expensive that we’ve seen in recent years and a lot more quality housing and real spaces for people. There needs to be some determination on the part of the council to ensure that Leith keeps that feeling it is somewhere different, that it has its own character and appearance. Edinburgh needs that too, we hear plenty about the chances that the capital might lose its World Heritage Site status but we don’t hear much about what the people need or how parts of the city not covered by World Heritage status should be protected.

When I was a councillor I served on the planning committee for a few years and we let some horrors through. We tried to improve things, we tried to force some aesthetic considerations in and we had some success but nowhere near enough. We’ve got to do better and we need change. Planning committees all over the country sit as quasi-judicial bodies; they’re courts where the judges are councillors – advised by qualified council officials yes, but it’s still councilors, sitting in judgement, expected to forget about politics while they’re doing it. Planning decisions are supposed to ignore politics and all political consideration and be taken in a considered manner. It’s nonsense of course. Councillors treat the job seriously and do a decent job by and large, but they’re stuck in a framework that doesn’t allow them much discretion and doesn’t give them the tools they need to improve the area.

Why should a planning decision not have politics in it? Politics is where the people come into decisions, after all, and these are decisions about what should be built in our neighbourhoods; it affects people’s standard of living. Why should you not be able to object on the grounds that the building just doesn’t fit in (if you live in a conservation area you can, of course) or that the local amenities aren’t up to it?

Why can’t we simply be able to say that a large chunk of the neighbouring population simply don’t like the proposal? It’s their area, after all. Why can’t we place so much power in the hands of local communities that developers will have to really consult them – and listen to what they say?
It’s time for a change to the planning laws, it’s time to put the power in the hands of the people and to make every developer think and think again about what they’re proposing. I think that will drive standards up and I think it will give people the power to make sure that what gets built in their communities is worth the effort.

Twitter: @DeidreBrock

9 responses to “It is Time to Change the Planning System”

  1. Jenni says:

    Really interesting points and I support many of them.

    I'm not an expert in planning but have become interested due to the shocking proposals made by RBS for tower blocks (opposite Fettes Row and Royal Crescent) that would substantially and permanently impact negatively on the setting of the World Heritage Site and the character of the New Town Conservation Area. These are both clearly protected in the Development Plan and yet the applicant states in their application that their discussions with planners suggests planners are minded to be in favour with the scheme. I really hope this is the applicant's bravado, not a shocking lack of intention to uphold City of Edinburgh Council's own plans and policies. Residents clearly voiced their objections during pre-application consultation and made alternative proposals (not everyone said don't do it at all but said at least do it sympathetically) but the application ignores this. So pre-application consultation requirements are weak because you have to consult but you don't have to do anything with the feedback. I'm also very disappointed by the lack of teeth on the part of Historic Scotland who, pre-application anyway, appear only to object about views down Dundonald Street being obstructed, not the impact on setting of the World Heritage Site. Hopefully they will wake up to this. Even just feeling that you have to raise the objections because perhaps they will not be properly identified is exhausting and upsetting. Developers appear to have too much power in the situation and our elected representatives do not seem to have enough power to stand up to them on our behalf.

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