Plans for the regeneration of the docks took a huge step forwards on Wednesday as the City of Edinburgh Council planning committee granted outline planning permission for Forth Ports to develop the first two, so called ‘urban villages’ on the area around Ocean Terminal.
At the same meeting councillors agreed to grant Outline Planning Permission for the whole docks masterplan too – agreeing to “agree later” on the contributions that Forth Ports must make to support the public infrastructure required as development proceeds. The debate before permission for the masteplan was given was interesting. Many of the councillors were clearly concerned that Forth Ports would be able to avoid paying the amount of ‘developer contribution’ that the various reports and senior council officers have assessed as necessary, if the ‘jam tomorrow’ deal that would see payments phased over the lifetime of the development went through.
Cllr Munro asked whether payments would be index linked. Cllr Morris, Cllr Burgess and Cllr Child were concerned that the agreement would leave the council at risk – although Cllr Child said she did not want to appear “risk averse.” Indeed, the impression we got was that no-one wanted to be accused of jeapordising the continued regeneration of the docks by asking too many probing questions.
And this, despite the fact that Forth Ports now do not have to pay anything towards new schools, transport improvements in the surrounding area, and a tram contribution of just £3.6 million. Forth Ports conceded that it will take them around 10-15 years to complete the development of the first two villages, and so the council is unlikley to receive any more significant financial contribution towards public infrastructure for at least a decade.
A further point of debate was the stated aim of building a ‘carbon zero’ development. Forth Ports have an independent report which suggested that it was commercially impossible to get anywhere close to zero carbon, as if they were forced to build to higher standards on the docks then private developers would just build elsewhere. Cllr Burgess and Cllr Childs both voiced concerned that current financing models were not sufficient to deliver a low carbon development.
Whilst planning officials say that they’re confident that the Scottish Government will permit the City of Edinburgh Council to borrow more money against future tax revenues created by regeneration on the tax (so called ‘Tax Incremental Finance‘ or ‘TIF’), Cllr Child said she was worried that this would only be useful for financing ‘regeneration bling’ and not things like low carbon energy infrastructure, or cycle paths, that the development really needs to make it work. This is because TIF borrowing is only likely to be approved by the government if they believe that the things it pays for will lead directly to an increased tax take. This seemed to imply that people thought TIF could be used to pay for roads, but not cycle paths – but no-one really knows as it’s never been done in Scotland before. And, there is still no guarantee that Edinburgh will be allowed to borrow millions of pounds to support the public infrastructure in the area.
Despite all these uncertainties, the planning committee voted to give outline planning permission for the Forth Ports Masterplan – with no new conditions, and therefore ignored the concerns of senior transport officials that the local transport infrastructure could not cope without investment from the developers.
Cllr Burgess and Cllr Morris proposed an alternative ammendment to reject planning permission until greater commitments were by Forth Ports to fund transport infrastructure and on the carbon impact of the project. This ammendment was rejected, so Cllr Burgess and Cllr Morris were the only two not to vote in favour.
The meeting then went on to consider the Outline Planning Application for the first two urban villages, covering the area around Ocean Terminal.
Greener Leith was invited to make a joint statement representing the combined views, of Leith Links Community Council, Leith Central Community Council and Greener Leith to this part of the planning meeting.
In our statement we called for a number of things:
- More early investment in the transport facilities in the area around the docks, as the negative traffic impacts will affect ‘old Leith’ much more than the new development. The improvements needed are set out in the North Edinburgh Transport Action Plan (NETAP).
- More ‘family’ home in the development. 5% of homes in the new villages will be 3 bedrooms or more.
- More affordable homes in the development. 25% of homes in the new villages will be ‘affordable’ homes.
- More support from the public sector, and more leadership from Forth Ports in developing decentralised, diversified low carbon energy infrastructure in the docks – with an element of community ownership.
- Conditions on the developers to deliver investment in green space and public realm early on in the development – rather than leaving this until everything else is built.
- More detail on the tram/boat/bike/bus/pedestrian interchange will work at Ocean Terminal and a commitment to building the highest quality pedestrian and cycle infrastructure throughout the development.
- A further reduction in the heights of the tallest buildings, as they will dominate they rest of Leith, where many parts are designated conservation areas.
However, we weren’t the only people invited to make representations to the planning committee. Leith Harbour and Newhaven Community Council made a representation too. Here are some of the key things they called for:
- Greater detail on the transport interchange at Ocean Terminal and they were also concerned about the capacity of the existing transport infrastructure in the surrounding area.
- Tall building to be built to a quality design – but not opposed in principle. Keen that ‘bland international styles’ are not used to avoid ‘Western Harbour mk 2’. Building styles should do more to reflect existing local character.
- A diversity of employment opportunities – and they reccommended that more industrial uses may be appropriate for the east end of the docks.
Next up it was the Cockburn Association. The made the following points:
- The regeneration of Leith Docks has not ‘gained sufficient momentum’ – partly because key buildings, like Ocean Terminal and Victoria Quay are ‘inward looking.’
- The development must play to it’s strengths. They say the current plans don’t remedy past mistakes or make the place unique.
- Call for more active uses of the water – as too much is ‘dead space.’
- The Cockburn Assocation are also very concerned over the proposals for tall buildings in the development.
After these representations, councillors were able to ask questions. We were asked to clarify our views about renewable energy generation, and at the end we were pleased to hear the council officials conceed that more needs to be done to support the development of community owned, decentralised energy infrastructure in the docks.
Forth Ports were then invited to speak, and alongside two of their staff, was Keith Anderson from the Port of Leith Housing Association. Forth Ports said that, so far, all the money they’ve made from the regeneration of the docks has been reinvested back into the area. They argued that the area around the harbour will be the ‘heart’ of the new area, and that high-density development was therefore justified.
They then went to admit that the changes they’d made as a consequence of the consultation on the proposals has improved the plans – and that they weren’t too proud to admit it. In the current plans there is less housing, and the buildings are less tall, in order to preserve some views up to the world heritage site in the city centre. There are also less parking places. It also emerged that they are in active discussion with a private developer to build and run a 5000 seater venue on the docks and that they see it taking 10 -15 years to complete the construction of these two villages.
Keith Anderson said that the ‘livable’ aspects of the neighbourhood were important, but that he also accepted the need for high density too – as the area will be the focus point for the rest of the docks regeneration. He picked up the point made by the Leith and Newhaven Community Council, that ‘bland internationalism’ design should not form part of this development, and he went on to point out that Port of Leith Housing Assocation have just won an award for the design of their Goosander Place development on Western Harbour.
Again the councillors then had a chance to quiz the speakers. As well as more debate over transport and energy, Cllr Munn asked for more detail about the provision of Car Club facilities and the ‘temporary’ green space proposed by Forth Ports to help improve the amenity of the area whilst everything else is being built. No further detail was given. Also, questions were asked about the provision of alternative accomodation for the Leith Sea Cadets. Again, no firm commitment was given.
Cllr Hinds also voiced scepticism of the proposals by Forth Ports to deliver more family homes in later phases of the development – saying “I’ve been here before with Waterfront Edinburgh and we keep getting told the affordable homes are going to be built in the next phase, and then it’s the phase after that.”
Cllr Munro made a passionate speech, calling for the planning committee to attach conditions to improve on the percentage of family and affordable homes, and demanding more money is provided up front for transport improvements in the surrounding area concluding “if we tighten up the conditions on this planning application would could get a development that the city can be really proud of.”
However, when it came to the final decision, no further conditions were attached to the application and it sailed straight through. Again, only Cllrs Burgess and Morris voted against, still unconvinced that Forth Ports will ever pay enough for transport improvements, or deliver a low carbon development.
Given that these planning applications are amongst the largest, and most important ever considered by the city council, it was remarkable how few councillors took part in the debate. Indeed, there were at least six who said absolutely nothing for the whole meeting. Was this because the administration had already agreed to nod this one through? We’ll never know. At the very least, Leithers can take some reassurance from the fact that at least all our local councillors did participate in the discussion.
Everyone agrees that the regeneration of the docks shouldn’t be left to stagnate but whether the decisions taken this week will leave the council exposed to too much risk remains to be seen. No-one seems to know whether Forth Ports have been let off the hook lightly – or whether this was the only realistic decision that could’ve been made to restart the docks renaisance. Only time will tell.