Author: Keith Baker

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Wednesday, June 30th, 2010 at 1:08 am
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Hull might win Crap Towns, but Edinburgh could win Crap Developments

I’ve never been to Hull, but I do pity it. Whenever the latest  list of crap towns is compiled Hull is usually in there somewhere, and it even won in 2003. Described by The Idler as “a sad story of unemployment, teenage pregnancy, heroin addiction, crime, violence, and rampant self-neglect”, it’s hardly the sort of place you’d want to visit on a recommendation like that.

To be honest, I haven’t been there so all I know about Hull is that it’s got a famous bridge designed by somebody-or-other, there’s been a dispute as to whether it belongs in Yorkshire, and it’s home to a couple of cult bands – although maybe that should be singular as the Housemartins and the Beautiful South have a few members in common. But that description could equally apply to so many towns and cities in the UK that have suffered at the hands of planners in the name of urban regeneration.

So how about this quote on another city described in equally disparaging terms as a “freezing, seething drug den cleaved through with running rivers of p*****-up students” seen in the city for the rest of the year”?

In 2004 that city claimed joint 4th place with its famous rival, on which the author commented “If there is a more miserable, brutal, godforsaken shithole on the face of this planet, then the human race might as well let the ants take over now”.

They are, of course, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Yet Edinburgh also frequently ranks in the top ten most beautiful cities in the world, and Glasgow is famous for its friendliness (unless, of course, you’re English).

As an outsider to both cities I don’t think either deserves to make the top ten crap towns, but then I wouldn’t put them in the top ten great towns either, and as a bus-user I do have to agree that Edinburgh has a case for claiming “the UK’s most psychotic public transport employees”.

The problem with these reviews is that they take the city as a whole, although to be fair the authors do seem to have taken the trouble to rate the city based on an area that’s larger than a five minute walk from Waverley Station and the middle class ghettos of Marchmont and Morningside. Because what Edinburgh could easily top is a list of Crap Developments.

Take the Gyle, memorably described by Irvine Welsh as an attempt to rebuild Princes Street on a scheme. In fact, just take it.

I’ve been through it but not stopped. I know it has a lot of shops to tempt the fashion-conscious urbanites out of the centre, but it doesn’t seem to have been much of a success in the way of urban regeneration. In fact it strikes me more as a cynical ploy to keep the neighbouring residents of Westerhailes out of the city centre, where they might not add to the image the council likes to portray to potential tourists. A cheaper option, and one employed by at least one city I know of, would be to limit the number of footbridges over the main roads to discourage the residents from straying too far from their cages – but then I forget about the surfeit of them along the A71.

Most famously we’ve had the Caltongate debacle, but fortunately in that case the recession succeeded where the combined efforts of the residents and the United Nations failed. Then there’s Granton, now reduced to a forest of concrete and steel skeletons blocking the view of the Forth, and the rest of the waterside shambles. Until recently it looked like the council was pinning its hopes on Quartermile to turn the tide, and here the developers deserve some credit for sympathetic renovation of existing buildings, although with the combined forces of the nimbyists of Morningside and Bruntsfield keeping a close watch they were probably under more pressure than most.

But now the poor people of Wester Hailes are facing an incursion, this time from the south, in the form of the new ‘Garden City’ development, with its much-vaunted use of sustainable technologies. But there’s a catch, in the form of the use of the qualifier ‘ideally’.

When it comes to planning for sustainability it seems there’s a lot the council would like ‘ideally’ but never seems to get. From disasters from the outset such as Caltongate, through spectacularly missed opportunities like Leith Docks, the council has repeatedly failed to learn that the use of terms like ‘ideally’, ‘aim to’ and ‘aspire to’ mean we’ll put it in the application, but when it comes to building the thing they’ll be the first bits to be cut when the accountants start being honest about the gulf between our aspirations and our financial bottom line’.

In fairness, the developers of the Garden City, Murray Estates and their partners (who rather refreshingly include a firm of economic consultants), might actually deliver. But what concerns me most, aside from the plans that assume the airport expansion will go ahead, is the impact on the neighbouring communities, of which the development’s website says very little.

When we talk about sustainable urban environments we don’t just mean the environment (although some consideration of that that goes beyond aspiration would be welcome) – we also mean communities. Yet the dangerous assumption that sitting behind a desk and drawing lines on maps to indicate where things need to be, and therefore will be, ‘improved’ stretches all the way from council planning to foreign policy – and when inevitably it goes wrong, the results are the same. The local communities feel aggrieved, the resistance builds, and eventually the invaders withdraw.

Edinburgh doesn’t need another set of attractions, it doesn’t need a bigger airport, and it doesn’t need another brand new development to house a transient population that will depart as quickly as they arrived the moment the job market starts drying up – and I write that as one of those transients.

What it does need are good quality, affordable, energy efficient, sustainable homes for the less well-off who will be there long after the shine has worn off the latest new thing. It needs to generate employment opportunities for them that won’t disappear when the rich move to their next des res; and it needs accessible public services that are not targeted at those for whom an unsightly blemish is a major medical emergency and a trip to the local shops does not require the use of a Chelsea tractor.

In short, what the residents of Wester Hailes and so many other areas marked for ‘regeneration’ need is for someone to listen, someone to help raise their concerns, and in many cases someone to tell the planners, architects and developers that they’re clearly delusional.

Sustainability means much more than a few gardens and the odd solar panel. It also means sustainable communities. It means building community centres, health centres, youth centres, allotments, schools, and post offices, and, where possible, letting the community own and run them. And it means running ‘stakeholder consultation exercises’ that have outcomes that are not pre-determined by those who commission and run them.

The problem with all that is that, at some point, the community will point at something, possibly a lot of things, and say ‘ we don’t need it and we don’t want it, what we want is this…’. That’s going to hurt, but not as much as it’ll hurt the people of Wester Hailes if they see that, for the second time in as many generations, the council has decided that the needs of those who might want to live and work in the city are worth more than the needs of those who already do. Because if the council and the developers of the Garden City fail to consider those needs those same people might start thinking that they’d be better off in Hull.

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