A Letter from Dundas Street
POSTED ON September 26, 2023 BY Christopher Day
When a planning application was lodged in 2020 for the demolition and redevelopment of the former Bupa and Centrum Houses, local resident Christopher Day and his neighbours were pretty horrified. Here he writes about his experience of multiple Council meetings, affected technical jargon and a process that favours development professionals over local communities.
He notes that every so often, an email or social media message pops up about one development or other, inviting people to ‘let us know what you think’. Following this experience, he suggests it’s difficult not to reply by quoting my neighbour who asked, basically, ‘what’s the point?’
A Letter from Dundas Street
Local resident Christopher Day talks about the challenges of participating in the planning process.
In 2020, a planning application was lodged for a site next to my stair. The site, at the foot of Dundas Street, comprised two office buildings known now as Bupa House and Centrum House. The proposal was for demolition and replacement with about 50 flats. It seemed strange to me, as new offices are being built opposite (former RBS/Standard Life); why not just build the flats there instead?
The plans were published and residents were pretty horrified. We like our ‘wee quarter’; it’s got a good ‘feel’ about it, with local businesses putting out flower baskets, people enjoying ‘café life’; everything we thought the Council wants to encourage. We couldn’t see how the proposals improved it, so we objected; not to the housing, but to demolishing rather than converting the offices.
It ended up at a hearing in front of the Council’s Development Management Sub-committee (DMSC) in autumn 2021. Objectors and the developer made their case. Despite planning officials’ advice, the DMSC refused planning consent (8 votes to 2). The developer appealed this decision to the Scottish Government’s Department of Planning and Environmental Appeals (DPEA). The Reporter rejected the appeal, largely on the grounds of the impact on the New Town Conservation Area.
A few months later, the developer submitted a new application; pretty much the same, but slightly set back from the street. In May 2023, it was off to the DMSC again. Again, the planning officer recommended approval. Again, the local community objected. Again, the committee refused planning consent, but this time by a closer vote.
However, we were told the meeting must be held again. Apparently, there was a question of legal action over the May meeting. In August, the DMSC reconsidered the proposals with some committee members excusing themselves. This largely replacement committee approved the application.
That’s the history. What have I learned from this reluctant foray into the planning world?
For a start, it’s exhausting and alienating. The sheer amount of time you have to put into it. Just writing ‘I object because A, B, and C’ isn’t enough. You need to learn how the system works. Understandably, some react: ‘I told them what I thought at the pre-application consultation stage, and it made no difference’. In reality, you have to keep at it for months, if not years.
The process and language are almost designed to deter lay people. I can just about distinguish the architect’s description of ‘rhythmic fenestration’ from ‘rusticated aluminum clad framing with chamfered perimeter edges’. However, when told the development is “with the key characteristics of a monumental palace block with unifying symmetrical and rhythmic elevational treatment, no projecting elements in the wall planes and shallow roof pitches and slightly advanced terminal pavilions”, it all goes past me.
Ivan Illich in his 1973 book Tools for Conviviality, sums it up: ‘the institutionalisation of specialised knowledge, the dominant role of technocratic elites…(who)…exert a ‘radical monopoly’ on basic human activities’.
In order to secure the status and income of the early professions (such as medicine and law), in the last century new elites adopted the characteristics of those professions: lengthy training, specialist language, and a body of knowledge, in order to distinguish themselves in a mass society. Of course, the notion of an authoritative body of knowledge contributes to the imbalance of power. The technical relationship between planner and development professionals seems to me to be just such a case.
Few people would argue that planning applications should be the subject of some kind of referendum. How can it be, when it seems fundamentally a matter of taste, preference and fashion camouflaged in the language of technocrats?
Furthermore, developers have much more contact with planning officers over their applications. Also, developers, in planning law, have many more options. They can make repeated submissions, and they can appeal to the Scottish Government Reporter if refused. Residents and communities have no option to appeal against decisions they don’t agree with. The only option is to challenge the decision through the courts, at considerable expense and risk.
Through all this, alongside us were community and heritage groups like the New Town and Broughton Community Council, Edinburgh World Heritage (‘the proposals would cause harm to the Outstanding Universal Value of the World Heritage Site’), and the Cockburn Association, which was particularly helpful in raising the impact of carbon emissions created by ‘demolish and rebuild’ compared to ‘refurbishment’; and commented that the proposals were ‘of ‘limited quality and interest and represent a dated architectural archetype…do not reflect the quality, residential character and scale of adjacent properties…inappropriate for this location’. I struck me that their comments and advice were just as sound as the developers and the planners.
But a decision’s been made. Every so often, an email or social media message pops up about one development or other, inviting people to ‘let us know what you think’. It’s difficult not to reply by quoting my neighbour who asked, basically, ‘what’s the point?’