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Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Thinking out of the box, or just out of the box? Realpolitik in Charlotte Square & Another cunning plan

April 7 2009

Wilson's Weekly Wrap: Thinking out of the box, or just out of the box? Realpolitik in Charlotte Square & Another cunning plan
Thinking out of the box, or just out of the box?
Like buses, you can go a long time without seeing anything in the Scotsman that is even vaguely about architecture and then – lo – two features in one week. Well, not so much features as opinion pieces by a duo of well-known architects stationed on separate sides of the Caltongate divide. The first, by Malcolm Fraser, sought to articulate the protagonists’ position and whilst it made a bold case for seeing the proposed architecture as a continuation of Edinburgh’s strong urban traditions, it lapsed early on into a justification of the kind of statistics so well-loved by politician and, by default, developers – the supposed number of jobs created in construction and the predictions of total jobs established as a result of the finished development itself.  

The trouble with this argument is that developers are not actually in the business of creating jobs but, more fundamentally, in the business of making themselves piles of dosh. If the development equation most profitable to them also responds to outdated political imperatives, all well and good, but this usually equates to those aspects of their projects they can pre-let to others who actually are in the business of front-line employment. No pre-lets, no development finance: precisely the problem that brought down Mountgrange, the developer for Caltongate – put simply, nobody else saw commercial benefit in their project just at the time when the company most needed them to.

The question is whether or not the scheme that proved so seductive to the City of Edinburgh Council and the Chamber of Commerce will, when the economy begins to recover, prove to be quite as enticing. In any case – and Malcolm surely understands this all too well – the number of jobs created is never contingent upon the quality of the architecture proposed and any project for this site could just as easily max out the figures to suit its case for political approval. Whether or not the scheme is – as Malcolm asserts – hugely better than previous proposals for the site will no doubt be the subject of ongoing debate given that these predecessors were simply (as it was for Caltongate before the crunch) the most financially beneficial for the developers of the day. None were perfect, none were based on any assessment of the actual civic needs of Edinburgh.

So to James Simpson, an architect who, by virtue of the long tenancy his practice previously had in an office just off the Canongate, knows the Old Town just as intimately as Malcolm.  As a noted conservationist, James makes the case for a more Geddes-ian approach, albeit less specific since he is not fronting an alternative project. James is spot-on in one respect though – history does show that times of high economic pressure are often bad for historic cities, although whether or not the principles espoused by Patrick Geddes could provide an alternative funding scenario for the Caltongate site is not a question likely to be tested by the City of Edinburgh Council.

The prime movers of the anti-Caltongate cause, however, has been SOOT (Save Our Old Town), a loose agglomeration of local residents and others that, in the wake of  Mountgrange’s demise, has boldly initiated the formation of a ‘Canongate Community Development Trust’ to consider and promote an alternative vision for the site. Nobody should doubt the intentions or the energies of this group – they have been far sharper in generating press and public support than the aforementioned Mountgrange, despite the latter’s considerable investment in marketing and public relations. But the real question for this large city centre site is one the Council long ago abrogated responsibility for: the need for a proper civic vision that transcends the development imperatives of specific interest groups whichever sector they happen to come from.

Realpolitik in Charlotte Square
Given the way the tectonic plates of local politics have been shifting of late, it was probably bound to happen, so the only surprise is that it’s taken so long for Edinburgh’s World Heritage Trust (EWHT) to be banned by its two principal funders from commenting on major developments in the city. Not wishing to be seen to be wielding the big stick themselves, the city’s Council and Historic Scotland appointed consultants who – shock, horror - came to the conclusion that the Trust was “too adversarial” and was responsible for “considerable tension” with the two partner bodies that until now have provided it with £1m plus of public money per year.

The City of Edinburgh Council has, as the Wrap has mentioned before, always found itself confused by the World Heritage Site status awarded to its Old and New Town areas as a result of an application to Unesco by Historic Scotland in 1995 and consequently has tried to accommodate it in the only terms it understands - tourism and commercial benefit. Giving the EWHT carte blanche to veto duff planning applications certainly wasn’t part of that agenda, and there can be little doubt that the Trust’s acerbic comments on the Council-approved Caltongate project was the straw that finally gave the municipal camel the hump.

Not that it admits as much – no, Jim Lowrie, the current chair of planning, insists the Council is simply trying to “streamline” the planning process in the capital. What streamlining means in this instance is a requirement that the Trust direct its energies towards the promotion of the World Heritage site to tourists, to work with schoolchildren and to develop projects to restore historic buildings and monuments. The latter has a particular piquancy, given that the Council and Historic Scotland have long since ceased to allocate the levels of funding to the Trust that facilitated useful grant aid to building owners. And just to confirm it’s got the message, an EWHT source is reported as saying that “we’ve been told to keep our heads down or face substantial funding cuts…it was very much a case of take it or leave it.”

In days gone by (and surely that’s the world most loved by the EWHT board?), political pressure of this sort would not be tolerated and from the chair down, mass resignation would be the order of the day rather than be seen as the patsies who succumbed to totalitarian stricture. Not so, it seems: as chair of a now revisionist EWHT, Charles McKean has simply commented to the effect that ”the recommendations made reflect a change of emphasis towards more targeted grant-giving (sic), project work in the public realm and interpretation of the World Heritage site. That may well be the case, Charles, but it does make the rest of us wonder what the last 14 years of street-by-street, building-by-building combat by the Trust have really all been about.

Another cunning plan
What its all about now of course is BIDs, or Business Improvement Districts to you and me, an idea imported from the USA as a means of upgrading the commercial areas of our cities. To do this requires a major buy-in from the commercial and retail companies and organisations since they need to agree to a financial levy over and above the normal business rates they pay to the city. The idea is that this additional money is ring-fenced by the BID organisation for improvements to the local trading environment that have been identified by the participants and which would not normally be paid for out of municipal funds. Or at least that’s the way it works in the States – in Edinburgh a new BID organisation has replaced the rightly maligned City Centre Management outfit previously set up by the Council and whose sole visible act before being closed down was to pour lots of money down the slope of South Castle St on a staggeringly mediocre piece of pedestrianisation the like of which no self-respecting city in Europe would be seen dead with.

This new kid on the block hasn’t had time yet to make an impact, but at least it’s up and running. In Glasgow, by contrast, proposals to establish a BID area were met in a vote last November by a decisive thumbs down from city centre companies, many of whom felt they were being asked to pay again for services and facilities that they believed they were due in return for their already exorbitant business rates. No matter, Glasgow City Council is steaming on with its own action plan to attract more shoppers into Buchanan Street and its hinterland, the only difference being that the improvements being suggested – erecting signs for visitors, improved street lighting, new public toilets – will all come from a £4m pot assembled from a raid on existing council budgets. Now you might argue that the companies in the area are accurate in believing these are the kind of things their rates are supposed to pay for, but in a tough trading environment who could argue with the setting up of a radio link between retailers to improve security?  Probably only the person who took offence at my comments last week about Glasgow’s star status in the shoplifting league and who as a result considers me to be anti-Glasgow and anti-Glaswegian.

It’s a funny old thing, I can write week in, week out about the strange and wonderful things going on in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Inverness and nobody bothers a jot: pen a few choice observations about the second city’s ability to mythologise itself and its doings, and the born-again Weegies lose the plot. I know it’s not the done thing to describe anything in raintown as other than absolutely perfect or the best in the world, but having been born and brought up in the city I don’t actually need to buy into any of that tosh. So, just for the record, I’m not anti-Glasgow but I am very much against the provincial pork barrel politics that have kept the place from punching its proper weight for far too long and have distracted from the debate necessary to actually improve the place. In the meantime, I should have mentioned that the Council’s city centre action plan has one other, grander ambition: “building retailer involvement in the 2014 Commonwealth Games”, whatever that means. Just don’t complain to me if any of the venues go missing between now and then.

Under starter’s orders
Meanwhile, up in Inverness the Highland Housing Fair – sorry Scotland’s Housing Expo – appears (as alluded to in the Wrap a week or so back) to have got some spring back into its step with a clarion call to the architects to hot foot it to a meeting next week. Not having heard a peep from the organisers for some time, many of the architects involved had almost given up hope of the thing going ahead at all, but with a new housing minister in place it now seems to be all systems go, although not perhaps on the financial model outlined by Susan Torrance at the meeting last December of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Architecture Group.

To be honest, nobody seems to be very clear on what financial model is now being applied, but there is much muttering about the way in which projects have been grouped into ‘design-build’ packages and whether or not we will see any real architecture and construction innovation as a result. Time will tell on this, as it will on the programme as a whole. Still, in these current slack times, it should be no problem to get the various contractors’ full attention on the pencil-sharpening task required to get the job within available budgets. Or will the thumbscrews be put on the architects to alter their designs and to chip in yet more of their time gratis? Perhaps the meeting next Wednesday will go some way to alleviating these fears, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more disquiet emerges within the various design teams as a result of the strictly timetabled individual conversations.

And finally…
I’ve remarked before on RMJM’s impressive public relations machine and its ability to get coverage in all levels of the printed press, whether national newspapers or lowly trades journals. In any other industry this wouldn’t be considered remarkable, but in architecture such proficient and regular trumpeting is not so much unusual as only practised by a few.  The latest news from Bells Brae is perplexing however: having announced only a few weeks ago that the company was bucking the trend with a doubling of pre-tax profits in 2008 to £7.9m, the newest missive provides a tale familiar to the rest of the industry, viz 60 lay-offs in its Edinburgh and Glasgow offices and a request to its workforce to accept a ‘voluntary’ 10% pay cut.

Chief executive Peter Morrison puts it all down to “a slowdown of a number of projects including two delayed Learning and Skills Council schemes” and that “staff numbers are having to be reduced to provide some level of protection against the negative impacts of the recession.” Nothing in any of the above could be said to be an unfamiliar story in other offices just now. Except perhaps the bit about £7.9m pre-tax profit, a sum most practices can only dream of given the tribulations of the construction industry during the past eighteen months. Must have had Fred Goodwin at the RMJM Christmas party is all I can say if the best part of eight million smackers has gone awol since the end of last year.

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