Ruminations from the Director – Are events now exempt from planning?

POSTED ON July 23, 2021 BY Terry Levinthal

Some reflections from the Director of the Cockburn on World Heritage Site status and festival events and planning consents

What an interesting week!

The headline story was the stripping from Liverpool of is the coveted World Heritage Site status.  Following years of concern about development proposals in the city, UNESCO made this bold decision, which has only happened twice before.  Guardian journalist Oliver Wainwright wrote on 21 July that this is hardly surprising, saying the local City Council “has trampled its historic buildings with glee, pursuing needless demolition and rubber-stamping numerous atrocious developments, wreaking civic vandalism on an epic scale” and for its former mayor, WHS inscription was little more that “a certificate on the wall”.

One section that stood out for me was Wainwright’s comment:

“In March, a damning central government inspection described instances of building work starting without planning consent, as well as reports of building regulations and planning agreements being breached that were ignored.”

So why did this stand out?  Well, at the time of publication I was busy writing the Cockburn’s formal response to Assembly Festival’s planning application in George Square Garden.  We have long advocated that soft surfaced areas such as parks and gardens should not be used for infrastructure-heavy events due to the damage they cause to the ground, the loss of essential amenity space, and specifically here, to the impact to the trees in the Square.  Today (23 July) is the final day for comments to be submitted on the planning application.  However, the development has already been built and the VIP opening event is scheduled for this evening. This suggests either extreme confidence in gaining approval or contempt for the statutory planning system in this city.  Wainwright’s words resonated.

This week the Cockburn also received a slightly belated response to a Freedom of Information request.  At Edinburgh Council’s May Planning Committee, on the subject of the relaxation of planning controls for the city’s Summer Festivals, the Chief Planning Officer reported that an assessment by his department suggested that many festival venues has been operating for some time without the necessary planning consents in place.  We asked to see this report.

The response was clear.  There was no information to disclose as there was no formal report; only a chat in the office between planning colleagues.  No systematic collation of breaches of the statutory planning consents seems to have been made. Given the huge outcry in late 2019 when Underbelly erected a massive space deck in East Princes Street Gardens without consent, a review of planning and events in public spaces might have worthwhile.

At our City for Sale public summit in January 2020, Professor David MacGillivray, an expert on festivals and urban spaces, spoke of the process of Festivalisation.  He reported on the increasing trend of cities world-wide using festivals as a marketing and brand tool, with increasing use of temporary venues and pop-up structures in civic spaces as a notable feature.

Over time, public spaces get “re-structured” from a civic use value to an exchange value resulting in a change of attitude whereby symbolic civic spaces are seen as merely as saleable assets or commodities.  This normalises and justifies the events process, accepting the privatising of their use.  It also sees a lessening of management regulations aimed at preventing this process in the first place.

Edinburgh has had its fair share of major developments, and UNESCO has already highlighted its concerns about Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site, as I reported in a blog published on our website this week when I reflected on Liverpool’s situation.  In noting that Edinburgh’s position as a World Heritage city was not under imminent threat, the key word is “imminent”. The underlying trend is one of ambivalence and decay which unless reversed, may well result in Edinburgh being registered as World Heritage at Risk.

We could just shrug our shoulders and dismiss breaches of planning control like that at George Square Gardens or the previous Christmas market.  If we do so, are we not just accepting the commodification civic spaces? Are we saying that big corporate events justify putting the city’s planning system to one side? Do local communities and businesses have no say in what happens in their neighbourhoods? Such a thoughtless and short-term approach will only hasten the day when we join Liverpool on the international naughty list.  I believe that we are better than that.

As I concluded in this earlier blog, “There are good policies in place.  The civic will to enforce them is key.  The City of Edinburgh Council, the Scottish Government and other national organisations, like Historic Environment Scotland, need to refocus their considerable energy and resources on the conservation and protection of the Edinburgh’s built heritage before a monitoring mission from UNESCO reviews the status of the Athens of the North once again.”

There is much more at stake here than a certificate on the Lord Provost’s wall…

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