Author: Graeme Shaw

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Friday, June 23rd, 2006 at 11:02 am
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Neighbours, Everybody Needs Good Neighbours

Graeme Shaw asks the neighbours of the Scottish Parliament what it’s like living and working near this prestigious building

It is always an exciting prospect when a new neighbour arrives. Are they going to be noisy? Or park in front of your driveway? Or will they lend you their lawnmower or fetch the shopping for you when you’re ill?
Programmes such as Neighbours from Hell have yet to feature the Scottish Parliament so perhaps they haven’t been doing too bad a job! But for those living and working round about, it has been a mixed blessing. During the prolonged building works, more than a little understanding was needed.
The late Rt. Hon Donald Dewar, in a speech in 1998 announcing that Ho¬lyrood had been chosen to become the site for the new Scottish Parliament said, “I am delighted to announce that after a careful and thorough examination of options, Scotland’s Parliament will occupy this prestigious setting in the historical heart of Edinburgh close to the Palace of Holyrood.”
He said that the Holyrood site had the most to offer combining an opportunity to construct a new specially designed building right for Scotland’s needs in the twenty-first century with a unique historic setting.
Those in the area were already experiencing the effects of a much wider strategy for the development of the Edinburgh Old Town. The Holyrood project aimed to breathe life into an area of industrial dereliction in the Old Town Conservation Area (a World Heritage Site) on the verge of the exceptional Arthur’s Seat and Holyrood Park. Tourist attractions, offices, flats and associated small businesses were planned and the arrival of the Scottish Parliament as well, was to see the area transformed.
As far as Planning functions went, the Scottish Parliament’s development was part of this overall development site but not a straightforward application because the applicant was “the crown” which is exempt from normal procedures. In circumstances such as this the applicant is expected to follow the normal procedures as closely as possible and to take into account the results. The site was governed by several policy statements as prepared by the local authority and outlined in the relevant Local Plan.
These included listed building requirements because Queensbery House, in the centre of the Parliament’s grounds, is a Grade A listed building, so all development had consultations with Historic Scotland as well as the local authority. Conservation area requirements would have to be met to make sure that special standards of design and materials were used. And the applicant is expected to consult with local people such as neighbours, groups and bodies such as gas, water and electricity.

In June 2003 the Queen gave a speech to the Scottish Parliament at their temporary location further up the Royal Mile, and said, “shortly, we shall become neighbours when the Parliament moves to its new campus at the bottom end of the Royal Mile.”
There was no indication of whether this was a development she relished! The Superintendent of the Royal Household at the Palace of Holyrood, Mr Geoff Mackrell, commented ,“all the way along we’ve said how nice it would be to have another attraction at this end of the Royal Mile.”
The Palace of Holyrood House is in a slightly different position from the other neighbours, as an official residence of the head of state. Therefore consultation between the Parliament and the Palace was anticipated. Most consultation was concerned with the impact of building works and then the opening ceremony.
On the ninth of October 2004 Her Majesty the Queen officially opened the new Scottish Parliament building, commenting,.“Certainly this new parliament building has had a difficult and controversial birth.”
The building has been placed in a very significant place in City of Edinburgh; amongst Edinburgh citizens. With houses, a primary school, a war veterans residence and numerous shops, offices and tourist attractions in close proximity, the parliament site exemplifies the message of a parliament for the people.
Its situation in an area where many people go about their daily business makes the need to be a good neighbour rather than a bossy incomer even more important. How does the parliament measure up?
As you would expect, residents endured considerable upheaval during the construction period. Traffic diversions, road closures, noise, dirt and general hassle were all unavoidable. Builders Bovis handled relations with local residents themselves, and provided Christmas hampers, window cleaning and other niceties for them. The Parliament then held formal and informal liaison meetings with its immediate neighbours to keep good communication lines open: these were the Palace, Historic Scotland, Our Dynamic Earth, and the veterans’ accommodation at Whiteford House directly across the Canongate.
But these efforts don’t help if your balcony is literally ten feet from the new building’s back wall. A local resident says, “People think these flats are a throughway, which wasn’t a problem before.” She wasn’t enamoured of the design either. It’s a horrible building,” she replied, “It’s an eyesore and if I could move, I would.”
She had been living in these flats for over forty years since they were built and is angry that her view of Salisbury Crags has been replaced with a view of the Parliament’s toilets. “Before they put the glass in, we could see right in,” she added.
Other ‘residents’ have had better experiences. The headmistress of The Royal Mile Primary School on the Cannongate says, “We were very excited by the prospect; being aware that this area would change from being a rather forgotten part of the city to becoming the hub of parliamentary life.”
The main disruption during construction was caused by a set of temporary traffic lights. Now the problem is not so much vehicular traffic but pedestrian traffic and people takng photographs, a sensitive matter for schools.
The school, however, benefited with the delay from the kindness of the workmen, who donated funds from a football and darts competitions and also provided Easter Eggs and the services of Santa last Christmas!
Generally, the school as a whole is very happy with the idea of learning and working next to the Parliament building. “As a school situated so near to many tourist attractions we are happy to have yet another one on our doorstep,” the headteacher Annabel Macrae commented, “We have had several visits already and our pupil council helped open the Education Centre recently.”
When the new building opened, a group of ten pupils from the school formed a guard of honour for Her Majesty the Queen as she left to return to Holyrood Palace. Both the Queen and Prince Philip spoke to various members of pupils and staff.
Local businesses had high expectations of the effects of the new attraction. It is perhaps too early to tell whether this optimism is justified – American tourists are still few and far between, says Paul Carson of the Carson Clark Gallery but across the road, Stephen Penman at Cadenhead’s hopes the ‘weekend break’ tourist, often from within the UK, may turn out to compensate. “1000 people go up and down the Royal Mile now,” he says.
“We’ll know better with this summer’s tourist season,” says another local businessman, Richard Cook, manager from ‘The Best fae Scotland’.
Heather Richard who has run Canongate Jerseys for 22 years, is wholly behind the improvements, which will include improved lighting and security systems, but, like many of the small businesses in the Canongate, has suffered during the building works. “We’ve seen a small lift in sales recently but sales were badly affected during the power cuts and road closures – and there are still more to come.”
Sam, part owner of ‘Cannongate Stores’ has had a similar experience. “At first we were overjoyed that something down our end of the Royal Mile was being developed. All activities over the last eight years have been held at the top end.
“During construction the major problem was traffic. The Horsewynd was closed for the best part of two years so it built up in the Cannongate. Then there was continuous noise. Sometimes light explosives were used. The day started at 6 A.M. when lorries arrived..”
Sam was fortunate enough to be able to cash in on the thousands of workers who were employed on the site and enjoyed an increase in sales of morning newspapers, breakfasts and snacks.
But things are different since the building opened. “When [the Parliament] opened it felt like a 50% drop in sales, dead after 6th October,” he says. “Now there are only one thousand two hundred people working in the Parliament itself. There are facilities in the building so they have no need to explore outside. I’d say about 30% of staff and 30% visitors come here.”
Sam hopes that when the tourist season kicks off again in the summer, sales will pick up again and is taking an optimistic approach. “We’re going for a refit,” he says. After the refit, the business will concentrate on convenience foods, including lunches.
The Holyrood development has included a number of new commercial operations which located to the area to capitalise on the Parliament, amongst them the Scotsman offices and the Macdonald Holyrood Hotel.
While no one is complaining, business has not always worked out as well as these optimists hoped.
David Virgo, manager of Beanscene, loves the feel of the new space. “It’s really cosmopolitan,” he says, “even Metropolitan. But the level of custom we were expecting isn’t there. We get some customers from the new flats on their way home and we get people leaving the offices – although the Scotsman and the Parliament have their own subsidised canteens. We also have a few mums and children from the school and nursery – we’re very child friendly. But for a music bar, there isn’t the custom for us to keep open at night.”
One of the benefits identified by the neighbours is the high level of security they are now enjoying. Protests and potential terrorist attacks are a new consideration but policemen on foot patrol are never far away and a special branch inside the Parliament building consists of fifteen policemen. “This is the best job in Scottish policing history,” said their chief.
It was, incidentally, one of these policemen who provided the only enthusiastic thumbs up, in our research, to the design of the exterior. “I think it’s great!” he said.
It’s a great thing to have a neighbour. It is especially great if you get along with your neighbour.
This is a new neighbour that embodies many emotions – pride, optimism, responsibility. For those who live and work in the area, the Parliament is generally welcomed for bringing attention (and trade) to this end of town.
Looking to the future, we have to wonder what future generations will think – the children of the Royal Mile Primary School – what benefit has it given them, learning next to the hub of parliamentary life in Scotland. What will later residents of the flats, looking into probably the most unpleasant part of the Parliament think, without their memories of a view of Salisbury Crags?
And will the lure of so many tourist attractions at the foot of the Royal Mile make this summer’s tourist season begin to compensate for the upheaval and loss of income they have experienced so far. Thousands of tourists from all over the world will flock to the capital to discover what the Scottish Parliament is like and what all the fuss was about.
But for the neighbours, life goes on every day. Will they ever be able to echo the words of Geoff Mackin, from the Palace of Holyrood, “We’ve been here for hundreds of years, so we have a long perspective!”

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