Last-ditch battle for the future of Edinburgh’s historic waterfront

As developers plan to make Scotland's capital's 15 per cent bigger, city architects draw up their own bid to save its cultural soul

A massive redevelopment of Edinburgh's waterfront which will increase the size of the city by almost 15 per cent is attracting widespread opposition.

The last and biggest phase of the project, turning almost 300 acres of docks into 16,000 homes, is expected to get outline planning permission in July. But critics are mounting a last-ditch attempt to get the project 'called in' for scrutiny by the Scottish government.

A protest group of Edinburgh architects and other professionals has come up with an ‘alternative masterplan’ for the seven-mile strip along the coast. They say the current plans are ‘developer-led’ based on large numbers of small flats and do not create the kind of cultural or living space that befits a capital city.

At the heart of the dispute is anger over the past privatisation of the port authority. Profits from the development of what was once a famous stretch of beach and then Edinburgh’s port will go to shareholders.

Architect Ross McEwan, a founder member of the protest group Jump, Joined Up Master Planning, said: ‘I think the privatisation under Thatcher was illegal. The people who lived and worked here and paid their taxes saw Leith Sands become the port of Edinburgh, which was a publicly owned facility. But then it was bought by private industry in the 1990s for around £30m. It is now worth hundreds of millions. When they get outline planning permission it will be worth even more – but that money will go to the shareholders. The land is being parcelled up and sold to developers, who will squeeze every penny they can out of it. I think that is wrong, and I also think it is leading to bad development.’

Colleague Shaeron Averbuch said: ‘Edinburgh is famous for its planning. The original New Town came out of the squalor and chaos of the Old Town. In 1766 they held a competition and the 23-year-old James Craig won it. The result is internationally known. We are supposed to be so much more enlightened now, and yet we can’t plan this. The council has basically left it to Forth Ports to do whatever they want.’

The alternative masterplan envisages draining deep docks to create sheltered space for parks, climbing walls, an urban beach and a performance space. A network of canals would also be created for houseboats and small craft with access to the open sea. Malcolm Chisholm, the local MSP, voiced support, but said the credit crunch was also putting a question mark over such development. ‘The developers are going to have to rethink their plans’, he said. ‘There is a slowdown in the areas that are already under construction. There are too many one and two-bedroomed flats being built and they are not selling. The speed of development may be affected, and the developers will need to think about putting in more of a housing mix.’

On a grey spring day the western seafront, where 6,000 homes are being built on almost 200 acres of dockland, is quiet except for the cries of gulls and the clangs and bangs of building machinery.

A scale model in the sales office shows the numerous balconies on the monolithic blocks festooned with tiny models in swimwear lying out on sun-loungers. But in reality there is little sign of life. A Baltic wind is blowing through the ‘viewing corridors’ into the scrubby wasteland which will one day be a park, and the North Sea is dark grey.

Two young boys have abandoned their bikes and climbed down to the water’s edge, perhaps unaware that they are standing above 20 metres of freezing seawater on the old harbour wall.

A Barratt housing development called ‘Q’ shows little sign of a queue. The show home is open, but there is no one there. Many flats in the new blocks were bought when ‘buy-to-let’ was a middle-class ‘must do’ and are now rented, some to Polish migrant workers, others to Japanese honeymooners and other holidaymakers.

Richard DeMarco, a founder of the Edinburgh International Festival, is an opponent of the development. He likens the apartment blocks to something that might have been built in Ceausescu’s Romania. ‘It is very disappointing,’ he said. ‘They are creating a vast dormitory with attached shopping mall. I would like to see a cityscape where people work and children play, where there are small independent shops in city squares and where there is some recognition of Edinburgh’s international standing. I can’t see currently why any festivalgoer would find a reason to go to Edinburgh’s waterfront, and that is a shame.

‘It is almost as if the city has turned its back on the waterfront. There should be a link to Edinburgh’s calling card, the International Festival. It could have a new headquarters, offering performance space for fringe companies at prices they can afford, which is vital for maintaining its vibrancy in the years to come.”

Forth Ports says the development will include a park, and the tram, already under construction, which will come through the area in 2011. They have said they would like to win the contract for a landmark building such as a Guggenheim museum and have lobbied for a government-funded cultural centre like Cardiff’s dockside arts centre.

Charles Hammond, chief executive of Forth Ports said: ‘The development requires considerable, sustained investment. We have already invested £150m in the area. There has been considerable regeneration in that time which has been very successful. We want to build communities here where people can live, work and play. A quarter of homes in the area will be affordable housing. Development will show returns for our shareholders but it also meets a need.

‘There are 80,000 people who drive into Edinburgh every day to work, and that is because in many cases property prices have driven them out of the city.’

The Observer
Sunday April 20 2008