In early May, Ray Perman, posted an excellent blog post calling for a new vision for Leith Walk. It elicited comments from a number of local councillors, local business people and community councillors and it’s well worth a read.
That single blog post has helped to start a debate which can’t happen soon enough, as there is very little public debate over the long term vision that the council has for Leith Walk. Does it still include trams long-term? If not, then what should happen instead?
Councillor Angela Blacklock says on in her comment on that blog post that Leith Walk is one of the top five streets in Edinburgh, and most of the subsequent comments to that blog post seem to focus on fairly cheap and straight forwards cosmetic measures on the street. It would seem most people simply want the street to put back to how it was, and to forget about the whole idea of trams.
But without trams, and the collapse in property values on the waterfront, could it take more than a few new bins and a lick of paint on some shop fronts to stop the neighbourhood going into decline? Isn’t what we need a vision, not just for Leith Walk, but a vision for the whole area?
Before we look at these questions though, lest we forget, let’s have a look at the long list of things which various credible people suggested might have been built in the Leith Walk/ Leith area. Despite the fact that much of this actually has planning permission, it now looks almost like regeneration parody:
• A 28 storey high “landmark” hotel building.
• Numerous other hotel proposals on every brownfield site on Leith Walk
• A big wheel
• A modern tram system
• A ferry to fife
• A cruise liner terminal
• A marina and finger piers
• A waterfront promenade
• An entertainment venue big enough for 6000 people.
• An extension of Leith Links to the sea
• At least two other significant public green spaces
• A “third new town” involving 15,000 new homes.
• 25,000 jobs for Edinburgh and Scotland as a whole
Oh yes, and a museaum. None of this is now ever likely to happen in Leith in our lifetimes, and in some cases folk will be glad. But what we are left with is clearly an embarrassment to all involved. Just last week, Planning Convenor, Jim Lowrie said of the new flats in Granton:
“We’re all embarrassed by that development”
“It was a mistake and nothing like that will be sanctioned again. The advice was that lots of small units were what people wanted in that area. Clearly it isn’t – there are many unsold dwellings and it has become very obvious that the build is quite unsuitable for mixed use and family living.”
Meanwhile, Forth Ports new owners have decided to throw in the regeneration towel and sell off their main property asset on the docks, Ocean Terminal. Simon Gray, of ARCUS said:
“We acquired Forth Ports because we identified significant potential to develop the ports business both in Scotland and in England and we see exciting opportunities to do so, particularly in supporting the renewables sector.”
“Real estate and retail are specialised areas and we believe that the further development of Ocean Terminal and Waterfront Plaza is best carried out by someone who has real expertise in this area.”
Today, Ocean Terminal can be yours for £100million, and as a bonus you get £62million worth of debt.
So what has gone wrong? Well the recession happened. And all those debt laden property companies who were building shiny rabbit hutches in the sky at Western Harbour to sell to debt laden buy-to-let landlords all went broke at the same time.
And the tram wreck happened, with a £1billion price tag, the latest cost mooted to take the tram to its planned terminus in Newhaven. As the Scottish Government is refusing to put any more cash into the project, the council has decided to limit its attempt at tram building to St Andrew Square, and it’s not clear yet they will even make it there. They need to find at least £200million and fast.
So, What happens next?
For months, if not years, Forth Ports, have been working on what you might call a ‘plan b’ with another huge company, Scottish and Southern Energy. They’ve cooked up two multimillion pound projects focussed on the docks. Both of them aim to take advantage of massive public subsidies on offer from the government.
The companies have a joint venture vehicle called Forth Energy, which aims to build a giant power station on the docks. Despite the fact that the Leith power plant is the most unpopular planning application ever made in Edinburgh, the proposal is very much still on the table, and Forth Ports continue to do their best to insist that this project is inexorably linked to it’s lesser known other project with SSE.
Fewer people know that the two companies also aim to benefit from about £35million from the Scottish Government National Renewable Infrastructure Fund, towards the construction of an ‘integrated manufacturing plant’ for off-shore wind turbines on the docks.
Leith is top of the list for funding, as outlined in a renewable infrastructure plan (or N-RIP), which Forth Ports have helped to write. Interestingly, it has a whole section which is dedicated to explaining how the planning system can be massaged to suit ‘industry needs.’ It says:
“The N-RIP supports an ongoing strategic dialogue between the site owners and the public sector at national and local level to progress planning and consenting processes for sites.”
“This will ensure that decisions about the suitability of development of the sites for offshore manufacturing and associated uses can be made in a timescale that meets industry needs.”
Local people opposed to the biomass plant have been trying to find out for some time, exactly why the City of Edinburgh Council agreed to postpone their debate over the proposed power plant until December. Planners had no need to acquiesce to Forth Energy’s request for a delay, but puzzlingly, they did. When questioned, local councillors have not been forthcoming.
So, perhaps that quote from the N-RIP is the closest Leithers will get to an explanation. Could it be that council officials have uncritically swallowed the bizarre notion that a giant, oversized power plant, with extremely questionable green credentials, is an essential component of a bid to persuade a wind turbine manufacturer to build on the docks? Of course, we are not part of the ‘strategic dialogue’ so we will never know for sure.
And at this point we should be clear. Greener Leith is wholly supportive of wind turbine manufacturing jobs on Leith Docks. They will be skilled jobs, and sustainable jobs. They will be jobs that will help to tackle climate change. But one, currently hypothetical, wind turbine manufacturing plant, does not justify, or require the early construction of a giant biomass plant.
In our objection to the plant, we showed that the climate pollution associated with grid electricity is likely to be lower than the climate pollution associated with the biomass power plant in the future. So, the argument that the power plant will somehow support the green credentials of the wind turbine plant is most probably nonsense.
So, the wind turbine plant would benefit the area, but the biomass plant, on the scale proposed by Forth Energy will not. When you look at the relative amounts of public subsidy on the table, you can see why Forth Ports are so keen to include the biomass plant as an ‘essential, associated uses’ component in their ‘re-industrialisation’ plan for the docks.
Afterall, there may be £35million on the table to support the development of the wind turbine manufacturing plant – but the real prize for Forth Ports is the £1billion plus of renewable energy subsidy their proposed biomass plant will bring them, if they can push it through in the face of huge opposition. That’s £1billion in the bank before they’ve even sold the electricity it generates.
Despite the attempts to spin the ‘re-industrialisation’ of the docks as a positive thing, the fact remains that Forth Energy’s giant power plant is not scaled to any specific heat demand. In this sense, the only justification for it’s size and appetite for foreign timber of unspecidied foreign provenance is speculation based on the scale of public subsidy available to support it.
And, if only the accountants in Economic Development could understand this – lots of people, like Visit Scotland, for example, regard the power plant proposal as potentially very detrimental to the local economy too.
But the interests of all the small independent businesses who depend on visitors to the area, don’t seem to register in the City Chambers. Perhaps because they don’t have PR’s, planning consultants, and ‘strategic dialogue’ with the government.
And let us not forget a third source of public cash that was to be spent on the docks to promote mixed use regeneration of the area around Ocean Terminal. The Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) deal was originally to have seen the council invest £84million on four projects:
• A new link road between Seafield Road and Salamander Street. This will help to remove through traffic from Commercial Street and Bernard Street.
• A Public esplanade and ‘events hub’ at Ocean Terminal
• A new finger pier for the Royal Yacht Britania and visiting cruise liners.
• New lock gates for Leith Harbour.
Recently, it has also emerged that the council is reconsidering the Tax Incremental Finance (TIF) deal that they did with the Scottish Government to help fill the £200million funding hole in the plan to get the tram to St Andrew Square. No doubt, by scrapping all the components of the project that Forth Ports doesn’t need any more. That would be everything on the list above, except the link road, which will make it easier to truck in timber and waste for burning in the power plant.
So, it would appear that the council could take tens of millions of pounds out of Leith, to support regeneration projects elsewhere in the city, with no guarantee the tram will ever reach Leith.
If this is the case, Leith will be hit twice by the failure of the tram project. First by the economic disruption caused by the infrastructure works and second, by the removal of tens of millions of pounds of regeneration subsidy for mixed use development of the docks.
With the notable exception of Keith Anderson, the Chief Executive of Port of Leith Housing Association, who points out in a recent letter to the Herald that “the aim of creating new mixed-use communities in Western Harbour and in Granton remains,” there seems to be little public debate on the implications of this potential withdrawal of funding.
Forth Ports decision to sell off Ocean Terminal only helps to justify the council decision to withdraw from TIF funded projects. But shouldn’t the council wait to see who will buy Ocean Terminal? Shouldn’t any new private company that might buy the centre, and the land around about it, be entitled to access public funding to regenerate the area too?
You might think so.
Actually bad luck for Leith comes in threes
But if that double whammy in the offing for Leith is not bad enough, last week it also emerged that the failure of the tram project has so skewed council finances that planning officers are directing private sector investors who want to build visitor attractions in Leith, to build elsewhere – on out-of-town locations in the West.
Were this development to go ahead on a green field site far out of town, everyone would have to catch the tram to get there. So, it would appear that the council is actively seeking to take millions of pounds out of Leith, and on top of that, it is also actively seeking to move private sector investment (that isn’t related to renewable energy) out of the area to bolster the ailing business case for the tram project.
Let’s be clear, there is nothing sustainable about this move to focus major development on greenfield sites on the edge of town.
So, we can count the ways that Leith will suffer as a consequence of the failed tram project. First, it has suffered because of the business impact of the all infrastructure work. Then it will suffer due to the withdrawal of mixed use regeneration funding to support the tram line to St Andrew Sq, and lastly, it will suffer because private sector investment for other mixed use projects is to be directed away from Leith to ensure that the tram line that is built will be profitable.
And then of course, there is Waterworld – a popular visitor attraction in the heart of Leith that will be closed soon, again to fund investment elsewhere in the city.
So whilst Leith has been left reeling by the collapse of the private property market, council decisions that mirror the commercial disinvestment in the area as a consequence of the tram project will only exacerbate the economic problems facing the area.
Net effect of all this – tens of millions of public and private pounds will not be invested in Leith.
So, is it not reasonable to ask, where is the vision for Leith and the Waterfront now? Is one fictional wind-turbine factory, and an unwanted, oversized power plant, the extent of the long term plan for the biggest brown field site in the UK after the Olympics site in London?
Is the economic future of Leith to be sacrificed to prop up a business case for a mismanaged tram project and the benefit of the handful of private investors who now own Forth Ports?
Or could there be a different way forwards?