Monopoly Edinburgh – Selling a City

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Edinburgh is being sold. Scotland’s capital is being sold-out from under our feet. Day-in-day-out property developers in cahoots with a conniving and inept council are buying and selling the very heart and soul of the city. Whether its architectural vandalism or asset-stripping of public buildings and resources, the pattern is the same – streets and common land sold-off on the Monopoly board of urban capitalism. The ‘City of Literature’ has become a plaything for millionaires whilst the planning regulation and heritage bodies stand idly by. It’s apparent that the City is under siege from global speculation, and this week we face a key test with the battle to save Central Library.

Proposals to build a massive Virgin Hotel, rising to 11 storeys, behind the library which will block out light and undermine the entire user experience have faced strong opposition but have been met so far by at best incompetence and at worst collusion. There continues to be a complete failure of political leadership about one of the country’s finest assets, a key public building and resource being undermined for the good of the super-rich. An independent Daylight Assessment on the impact of the ‘development’ on the Central Library has recently been published, revealing that if the Virgin Hotel is built the natural daylighting conditions will decrease by as much as a staggering 82%.

Richard Branson has stated:

“Edinburgh is such an iconic city and we’re thrilled to be able to say it will be the home of the first Virgin Hotel in the UK and across Europe.”

“My grandparents were from Edinburgh and my wife Joan is also Scottish, so the country has always held a special place in my heart. The people of Edinburgh have been so great in welcoming us to their great city; we can’t wait to open our doors to people across the country and, indeed, the world.”

I’m not sure he knows what’s going on.

“Besides fundamentally compromising the Library’s future, building on public land (Cowgate gap site) long set aside for the Library’s future development, the proposed hotel would block iconic views to the Castle from the Edinburgh and Scottish Rooms of the Library, significantly reducing light: a terrible irony given that the building was purposely designed to maximise natural light as the inscription set above the main entrance declares:

 

Edinburgh prides itself – and sells itself – as a ‘cultural capital’ and a City of Literature, but as other cities like Birmingham open the biggest library in Europe, the political leaders in Scotland’s capital sell out its soul.

While Central Library is just one of dozens of sites under threat across Scotland (see Bishopbriggs, South Lanarkshire, Sutherland, Culloden), it is a key battleground in trying to turnaround the onslaught of development.

You can’t simultaneously claim unique status while selling key cultural spaces. We should be following the lead of other cities and developing not destroying our public assets: opening them up, not shutting them down.

As the writer AL Kennedy has put it: “Despite digital reading possibilities, the role of libraries hasn’t changed. They’re a social space, a community information space, a breath of fresh air for young mums and pensioners, an access to peace and mental restoration for those in crisis. If you can’t afford books, digital or otherwise, if your school is failing or education never quite made it a library is a door to everywhere. Library closures hurt our most vulnerable the most. Close libraries and you spike social mobility and tear up hopes for generations to come. It’s inexcusable, short-sighted and frankly the cheaper option if you’re fond of book burnings.”

Before plans for the hotel were developed a Council commissioned study concluded that:

“It would be a hugely wasted opportunity if the (Cowgate gap) site was developed for other uses without seriously considering how it could, not just solve the existing problems of the Central Library, but re-invent the Central Library in a form relevant to 21st century needs and aspirations. The concept of expansion on the site addresses virtually all problems currently relating to the Library. The excessive pressure on the use of space is the key conservation issue that needs to be addressed… the fundamental problem faced by the Library is that it is simply not big enough for the population it serves… the physical limits of the current buildings do not allow the Library to grow in usefulness… It is clear that the current situation cannot be allowed to continue indefinitely and that if a radical solution to the problems faced by the Library is not adopted the Library and its facilities will become increasingly at risk of closure”.

City of Literature

What kind of City of Literature does this? The Central Library is not just an iconic building, it is a test case for Planning Democracy and raises profound questions about what kind of city we are living in and how far eroded and degraded are our understandings of meaningful citizenship. But it also brings into serious question the City of Literature status.

Simon Byrom who has been leading opposition to the development explains: “Even by the standards of our inept city council this is a scandal of the worst order. Statistically, Edinburgh has less central library provision than any of Scotland’s major cities, calling into question its ‘City of Literature’ status. Glasgow, for example, offers almost fifteen times as much space per head of population.”

This week an open letter signed by some of our finest writers urged:

“Edinburgh council to revoke this consent under Article 65 of the applicable planning legislation. Our libraries are precious cultural assets that must be cherished and passed on to future generations”.

Read it here: Letter To Times supported by writers.

Information is online today, but literature isn’t. By failing to value books and public spaces we are undermining not just the heart of our city but the idea of civilisation. This is a profoundly stupid development. It is myopic not to value the changing use of public libraries which have become not just a democratic resource and a hub for learning but a space that acts to rectify the digital divide.

Edinburgh Council is now facing widespread opposition to its mishandling of multiple sites across the city and it’s very status as a World Heritage site is under threat. Back in 2015 the UNESCO Director of World Heritage stated clearly:

“I would like to express the World Heritage Centre’s strong concerns about the state of urban conservation in Edinburgh. The general development vision for the City at the local and national level lacks an integration of heritage values, and the process is weak as a result. At the level of local planning consent, development projects are being approved without due consideration of heritage values and conservation, including a lack of Heritage Impact Assessments, resulting in negative impacts. The quantity and pervasiveness of development projects being pursued without due consideration for conservation is deeply worrying.”

Concluding that the planning process is weak and poses “a significant threat to the visual quality, integrity and juxtaposition of Outstanding Universal Value”, UNESCO have highlighted, among numerous other ‘developments’, the contentious Virgin Hotel which imperils the future of Edinburgh Central Library and the Old Town Community.

This is the endgame to this protest. It’s time to stand up for your city. Please share this post and the meeting details, come to the meeting and make your voice heard:

Let There Be Light Edinburgh – WHAT future for Edinburgh Central Library?
“Your City, Your Say”: The Betrayal of Community, Culture and Heritage

Invitation to a City-wide Public Meeting: 7pm Tuesday 29 May 2018
Central Hall, Tollcross EH3 9BP

Speakers:
Terry Levinthal,
Director of the Cockburn Association
James Simpson OBE,
Vice President of ICOMOS-UK (advisers to the UNESCO World Heritage Committee)
Andy Wightman,
Writer, researcher and MSP

Organised by Let There Be Light Edinburgh

Comments (18)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    For as long as I can remember there have been similar, and equally valid, concerns expressed about developments in Edinburgh. While it is a good tactical move to focus on the specific issue of the Central Library and the Virgin Hotel, the wider issue of land and property ownership in Edinburgh (and the rest of Scotland) has to be excavated. In addition, there needs to be an investigation into the web of social and economic connections which is probably more rife in Edinburgh than elsewhere in Scotland. The majority of private school education in Scotland is in Edinburgh. The law is based there. The Kirk has its HQ. It is still, despite all the unionist scare stories, the locus of a significant financial sector, it has the bulk of the civil service, many bodies like Historic Scotland are based there and much of their appointees are from a fairly narrow web of connections.

    Certainly, it is important to protect public assets, but let’s focus of the big issues like land ownership and the nexus of power, and not just properly authorised power, but these chains of influence.

  2. Graeme McCormick says:

    Edinburgh is a very wealthy city. It has citizens and supporters who could fund many civic projects. Surely they should be approached to help fund such worthwhile initiatives. Is it not possible for the Virgin Hotel plans to be varied to accommodate an expanded library? The worlds first library / hotel complex would be something which might appeal to Richard Branson’s sense of adventure.

    I have called on a number of occasions for the Scottish government to establish a Capital City fund for Edinburgh in preparation for Independence. The pressures on the city will intensify and the city will need help to accommodate an influx of foreign legations etc.

    A capital city creates first impressions which are so important. However it’s not about giving Property prices a boost but rather managing a challenge so that the market does not get over-heated and excludes ordinary folk as London has done.

    It may be possible to create a diplomatic quarter out with the city but near the Airport is one example.

    The other issue to remember is that Edinburgh like our other urban areas have large areas of land and buildings owned by the Councils which have been lying empty and uncared for for generations. That’s a loss of money to the public purse due to lack of asset stewardship. As we move towards a system of annual ground rent on both private and public land and property the dynamic to use land and buildings will remove the luxury which councils have long time enjoyed of sitting on assets and feeling under no pressure to do snything meaningful to them.

  3. Graham Rae says:

    The whole ‘City of Literature’ thing has always been a bit of a joke. I lived in Edinburgh from 2001-2002, round when it got that self-aggrandising, tourist-trap-pimping appellation, and all the writers had had to move away to Glasgow when the Scottish Parliament opened because they couldn’t afford to live in Edinburgh. This hotel idea is a horrible one, though. Typical Branson philistinism.

  4. mince'n'tatties says:

    So there’s a faff and a lather over blocked library light. Not a peep though over the selling of 76 football pitches that were utilised in the main by the city’s less well off kids.
    You want to enthuse people over independence….improve their mental well being through improving the lives of their children.
    I’m sure it’s unintenional but the juxtaposition, does appear pure Edinburgh in microcosm. Hey, but I suppose a fat tax is neater, simpler even.

    1. I wouldn’t imagine there’s much difference between the selling off of football pitches and libraries. The same forces benefit from axing our public goods and services.

    2. Pogliaghi says:

      Citizen journalism means you can totally start the “faff and lather” over the football pitches by penning your own piece.

      Libraries are a resource for the poor too aren’t they? Bit of a false whataboutery.

  5. alasdairB says:

    If EC do not revoke consent under Section 65 then, if thought expedient to do so, ScotGov has the power to intervene under Section 68 of the Act.
    However at this stage the nuclear option of revocation would most probably trigger a claim for substantial compensation.
    Surely there must be some form of aesthetic compromise which would be acceptable to developer, city and concerned citizens. Our capital city’s world famous architecture should not be endangered or degraded by Virgin or any other developer.

  6. SimonB says:

    The Old Town Community Council has produced a summary of this scandal making the exceptional case for revocation of planning consent due to a whole host of reasons.

    This debacle is much more than an issue of loss of light and views; it’s about the fundamental degradation of public services and the filching of public property at the hands of private speculative commercial interests (who crashed the banking system that precipitated this Age of Austerity & Endarkenment).

    Put the kettle on and have a look at the report and share widely with friends and acquaintances (and demand that Nicola intervenes!):

    http://lettherebelightedinburgh.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Edinburgh-Old-Town-Community-Council-Virgin-Hotel-The-case-for-overturning-planning-permission.pdf

  7. See also previous by Ray Burnett on this story. This from December last year …

    https://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2017/12/05/reclaim-the-city/

  8. George Farlow says:

    Having just stayed in Premier Inn in York Place for my sins, I haven’t much faith in Edinburgh planners since they allow hotels to have windows that don’t open. I thought it was at least traditional that all windows could be cleaned from the inside too. Anyway, I had the worst night ever. I recommend you stay outside and get a bus in. I watch empty trams all day in Queens Street, York Place but the buses were all busy. Yet they want to extend the tram line, even after the previous contract debacle. It would also appear nobody’s taken any notice of the recent Edinburgh Local Development Plan, adopted only 18 months ago. I hope councillors and other elected members for Edinburgh were all over it.

  9. kevin brown says:

    Good article, thanks.

  10. SleepingDog says:

    The coming of the shadows, indeed.

    The mostly likely way for the disadvantaged to participate in technologically-supported direct democracy is through the doors of their local library. Libraries cannot be in hock to corporations without compromising democracy. In the USA, it was librarians who stood in the front line against the PATRIOT Act. Weaken libraries here, and the resistance to the police state (PREVENT is one face) is weakened.

    Make no mistake, this is a war, and building your fortresses and temples over the foundations of your enemies’ is a classic move.

  11. Pogliaghi says:

    So where does the buck stop for this crap decision? Who is in control at ECC?

    The SNP, like any political party, even the Greens, will use its political capital (earned from representing a good cause) in the most cynical way possible. It was the SNP in power which rammed the M74 extension through the south side of Glasgow. The only solution is plenty of “market competition” for the indy vote and plenty of voters consciously willing to exercise it.

  12. Wul says:

    This certainly feels like something worth taking to the streets for, or occupying the site for.

    Every piece of commons is being snatched to extract profit from us and return nothing. We should be furious.

  13. Eleanor Ferguson says:

    After permission was given to ruin the Craighouse site,despite every organisation you can think of opposing it and a huge number of the public campaigning against it, I hold out no hope for any appeal to common sense and I think people don’t really believe that their objections are taken into consideration at all.

  14. montyaffairs minty says:

    Fantastic article and I think it completely right to single out the situation with Edinburgh Central Library as it is the culmination of so many bad decisions over so many years. Edinburgh has needed a new or redeveloped central library for nearly half a century and it is now further away than ever. The City of Literature should be stripped from the city. Crass, philistine planning decision by the city and in particular Edinburgh University amongst others have hallowed out a city that should be amongst the best in the world. Birmingham with less wealth and a confused and messy city centre has made the very best of much less than we have and whilst the new library is a jewel in th city they have also with purpose and a reall sense of civic pride made the city better for its citizens. Edinburgh has done the exact opposite and squandered so many chances and resources. It is a shameful state of affairs

  15. David Allan says:

    My take on what’s happening in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland.

    Low paid inexperienced Councillors and Council Planners are no match for the Big Business “Spivs and Speculators” and their rich Lawyers and Accountants.

    In this scenario Historic Buildings matter not a jot.

    I have no doubt that Scotland (not just Edinburgh ) is seen as “easy meat” in such matters.

    Future generations will be left to finance a tidy-up. Meanwhile the continuing planning blunders persist. The planners involved move on take their next career step, updated CV’s highlighting their project involvement.

    New Jobs by taking advantage of their influencial new acquaintancies!

    Perhaps possibly even a wee sniff of corruption.

    The next hungry for success Graduate recruit continues the loop. A new bunch of inexperienced Councillors are only a few years away! And so it continues.

    Regretably planning mediocrity in this Country has been allowed to become institutionalised.

  16. Neill Hooe says:

    The new Edinburgh Monopoly. Basically you just walk round the board paying rent and never being able to buy anywhere.

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