New homes and jobs being delayed by council staffing crisis
Plus Edinburgh Playhouse expands by buying bar; 'broad support' for city transport plans; and 30th birthday party for Trainspotting
National lack of planners an acute issue in Capital
The increasing burden of staff shortages in the City of Edinburgh’s planning department is posing massive long-term problems – as the Capital tries to deal with its housing shortage and hundreds of millions of pounds worth of development.
House-builders, the construction industry, and the wider business community have all complained of the time taken to progress planning applications, which is discouraging investment and hindering economic recovery and growth.
The Edinburgh Inquirer is a reader-supported publication. To receive our regular newsletters and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Indeed Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, speaking at the Labour Party’s annual conference last week, recognised this matter when she pledged an overhaul of the UK’s “antiquated planning system” in order to “Get Britain Building.” This would include helping recruit hundreds of new planners, fast-tracking net-zero infrastructure, and reviewing national planning policies to ensure they better reflect sustainability and other priorities.
Scale of the Problem
The problem lies with a national shortage of experienced and qualified planning officers in our local authorities, much of it caused by acute budgetary pressures. Plans are being put in place to recruit 700 new planners that will be needed over the next 10-15 years.
In Edinburgh, the existing shortage risks delaying vital work in delivering more homes to tackle the city’s acute housing shortage – the city wants to build 37,000 new homes by 2030, 20,000 of them affordable - and in helping to progress vital investment in major development projects in the city centre, including new hotels in and around Princes Street.
On top of that, planners must now sift through the planning applications of thousands of licences for short-term let accommodation operators. As of the weekend, 3,500 applications had been lodged under the controversial new licensing scheme, with only a few hundred already approved.
And all of this work must be tackled with fewer experienced staff and a shortage of trained and skilled recruits.
What is needed
Speaking to a construction industry publication in response to what he sees as unfair criticism, Ian Aikman, Chair of the Heads of Planning Scotland (HoPS), said planning departments were “under-staffed and under-resourced.”
Mr Aikman said: “I am not sure that you fully appreciate the significant pressures there has been on council budgets in recent years and that planning departments around Scotland have suffered substantial loss of planning staff, many of them very experienced officers, and this has undoubtedly impacted on services and how they are operated. This budget pressure and loss of staff continues.”
He added that funding and investment in planning departments is a key focus for HoPS in discussions with the Scottish Government and COSLA, the local councils body. He has called on the construction industry to “support our position that your members fees should be invested directly in planning services to help improve performance.”
Recruitment is Key
“It is also critically important, due to this loss of experienced staff and the demographic timebomb the profession is facing, that we have sufficient numbers of new planners coming into the profession”.
“HoPS is working with the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland, the Scottish Government and People in Planning on the Future Planners Programme to promote a range of options to deliver the 700+ new planners it is estimated will be needed over the next 10-15 years.”
“However, it will take time to deliver the new planners we need, and Planning Departments will have to manage this shortage in the meantime.”
Approach must be collegiate, not adversarial
In a hard-hitting response, he described some of the critical language used as “at best unhelpful and in places particularly distasteful.”
“I could also reflect on the many frustrations and concerns expressed to me by planners around the country about construction industry practices and the quality of submissions received but that would not be constructive nor assist in improving working relationships. Instead, I would prefer that we all focus our efforts on how to work better together moving forward, in what are incredibly challenging times for us all.”
The key to that is open, honest and positive dialogue he said, and described a variety of engagement processes that are ongoing.
“I am aware through participation in these discussions that there is a willingness from parties to work positively, collaboratively and in the spirit of collective endeavour. This is encouraging and more likely to deliver solutions than us engaging in a collective “mudslinging” exercise.”
YOUR EDINBURGH BRIEFING
PLAYHOUSE EXPANDS: The Edinburgh Playhouse is set to expand after buying the former Cafe Habana bar next door. The bar closed in July after operating as a popular LGBTQ+ venue since the 1980s. The Ambassador Theatre Group, which runs the Playhouse, intends to run the bar as a standalone venue, and as a “safe and inclusive space”, with direct access to the theatre likely to be created, reports Scotland on Sunday.
TRANSPORT PLANS SUPPORT: City transport leader councillor Scott Arthur has declared “broad support” for a range of plans to promote active travel and tackle air pollution before 2030. Market research commissioned by the council indicated majority support for a number of measures, with lower levels of support shown by the council’s online consultation. That includes support for restricting city centre traffic (64% in market research/47% in online survey); Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (62%/48%); a comprehensive city cycle network (61%/51%); less city centre parking (60%/48%); 20mph limits on shopping streets (58%/44%); and reduced parking to improve the environment on shopping streets (65%/52%). The lowest level of support was for 7am-7pm bus lanes (56%/40%) amid concerns it would add to congestion.
HOTEL TAXI RANK BLOCKED: The operators of the new 5-star W Hotel have been refused permission to trial a coach and taxi drop-off point in the St James Quarter pedestrianised area in a move described as significant by a respected active travel campaigner. The St James Quarter has a large underground car park, but the hotel said the drop-off point was important for red carpet events and to improve access for guests with mobility issues. City councillors refused to grant permission. Posting on social media, campaigner Stuart Hay said this was the first time the council had interpreted pedestrianised as “safe for walking”, comparing it to similar areas on the “Royal Mile, Grassmarket, Rose St and Castle St which are frequently driven and parked on”.
GORGIE PARKING WARNING: The city’s latest Controlled Parking Zone is due to come into effect in Gorgie next week (23 October) with the introduction of new restrictions on on-street parking and residents’ permits. Independent councillor Ross McKenzie has called for a last-minute pause on the scheme amid concerns many businesses and residents had not received letters informing them of the start date.
‘HUGE’ AVIAN FLU LOSSES: Scotland’s nature agency NatureScot has reported “huge losses” of guillemots, kittiwakes and terns from avian flu this summer. Most of the 9,610 dead and sick wild birds were found along the east coast. The agency is concerned the scale of the deaths poses a risk to the long-term recovery of the breeding colonies affected. Experts say avian flu poses a low risk to human health.
TATTOO BOSS QUITS: The chief executive of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo is stepping down after overseeing just two runs of the show, in the latest leadership change within the Capital’s Festivals. Major General Buster Howes, who is stepping down for personal reasons, is understood not to have relocated from his home in the south of England after taking up the post in June, 2020. The departure of the former Royal Marines Commander means that the Tattoo, Edinburgh International Festival, Edinburgh International Book Festival and Edinburgh Art Festival will all have changed leaders within 18 months.
HOLOCAUST DENIER EXTRADITED: A convicted Holocaust denier is to be extradited back to France after being arrested in Anstruther. Vincent Reynouard, 45, was apprehended after two years on the run in November last year. Following a hearing at Edinburgh Sheriff Court, Sheriff Chris Dickson has now ruled that his extradition is lawful despite Holocaust denial not being a specific offence under Scottish law. This was due to a video Reynouard had posted online which would have constituted an offence in this country, the sheriff said.
SCHOOL VAPING FEARS: Parents have raised concerns that some children are scared to venture into school toilets due to the number of other pupils gathering there to vape and the anti-social behaviour this attracts. The issue was raised at the city council’s Consultative Committee with Parents, the BBC’s Local Democracy Reporter service reports. The council’s head of schools Lorna French said vaping in toilets was increasingly being reported as a problem by pupils and school staff and that council was talking to colleagues in the NHS about what could be done to promote greater awareness of the health risks.
GREAT DERBY GOAL: Capital football rivals Hibs and Hearts have had their hard-fought sporting rivalry down to a tee for almost 150 years – now it will be par for the course in the splendid setting at the Royal Burgess Golfing Society. Football legends from both clubs will tee off for charity on Thursday, 26 October to contest the Auld Reekie Cup – and fans and local businesses are being urged to take part. Teams of 3 plus a legend cost £900 + VAT. Email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with all funds helping young people tackle mental health problems.
STUDENT FLAT OBJECTIONS: More than 450 objections have been lodged against proposals for 139 student flats and seven townhouses in Canonmills. Developers CA Ventures’ plans included a slight reduction in the number of flats and townhouses proposed for the former Jewson’s builder’s yard at Eyre Place after a previous scheme was thrown out by a Scottish Government planning reporter. Residents objections include the new buildings badly overshadowing communal gardens and the likelihood of noise from two roof terraces, reports the Edinburgh Evening News.
SHARP IDEA: Scalpels with built-in sensors could streamline training for surgeons. Further development could see the technology – which is equipped with a newly developed force-sensing system – used to assess a wide range of surgical skills and aid the creation of robotic devices that can perform procedures safely and efficiently. The low-cost device, was developed at the University of Edinburgh, by tracking 12 medical students and two surgeons as they carried out a procedure known as an elliptical incision.
BUS STARTS WEST LOTHIAN: Lothian Country has announced its intention to register two new bus routes and extend another in West Lothian from Sunday 3 December. The new service 73 will run Monday to Saturday every hour between 7am and 8pm, and will travel via Livingston Centre, St John’s Hospital, Livingston North, Deans South, Boghall, Bathgate, Wester Inch, Blackburn. Some early/late journeys extend to J4/M8 Distribution Park.
Meantime the new Service 74 will operate between Livingston Centre and Fauldhouse via Dedridge, Polbeth, West Calder, Loganlea, Addiewell, Stoneyburn and Bents. This service will run hourly, Monday-Saturday between 7am and 8pm and Sunday between 9am and 7pm. Finally, the extended Service 72 will operate between Kirkliston, Winchburgh, Broxburn, Uphall, Uphall Station, Pumpherston, St. John’s Hospital, Livingston Centre, Eliburn, Blackburn, Whitburn, Fauldhouse. This service will run hourly, between 7am and 9pm, seven days a week.
Rising costs halt pioneering “Green” homes scheme
Ambitious plans to build council housing in Midlothian using the world-leading green “Passivhaus” standard have been put on pause due to costs running higher than expected.
Councillors took the decision to pause the Passivhaus projects in the area, which had been praised for their ambition by the Scottish Government and others. It came after the councillors were told that the Passivhaus homes are costing up to £150,000 more than conventional build, raising questions about the benefits.
Councillor Stuart McKenzie, the SNP administration’s housing spokesperson, moved for a pause on any future developments until more information was available to look at the benefit the extra cost brings.
He told the meeting: “This was a decision made at council to use Passivhaus and I am not saying that was the wrong decision. I think at the time we made the right decision for the right reasons, but if the chamber is content I would like to propose we pause the use of Passivhaus so we can better understand the cost variants and why it is coming out significantly more expensive.
“It could be that we move forward with Passivhaus in the future or find another way to provide houses that are just as warm.”
A report showed that in Dalkeith’s Buccleuch Street ten housing units due to be completed next month were estimated to have cost £330,276 each. At Newbattle where 90 Passivhaus homes are being built the cost per unit was £341,456.
At another site in Newtongrange where 79 new homes are being built to a non Passivhaus standard, the cost per unit was estimated at £182,886. Even at a site where enhanced energy standards had been used costs still came in lower at £302,000 a unit.
The Passivhaus standard was developed by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. The standard sets out stringent requirements that ensures what is built needs very little energy to heat and then recovers that heat to re-use within the home. A Passive House allows for energy savings of up to 90% compared with typical building stock and over 75% compared to average new builds.
Meantime, more local authorities and architects in Edinburgh are talking about the Passivhaus Project in Edinburgh. Architect Grigor Mitchell will be speaking about the environmental benefits of net-zero housing at the Grange Association, on Tuesday 17th October, at St Catherine’s Argyle Church, at 7pm.
ROSE REWARDS UNDER DISCUSSION: Royal Bank of Scotland’s owner NatWest Group is ready to halt millions of pounds in bonuses and shares for Dame Alison Rose, who resigned in the wake of the Nigel Farage bank account affair.
The bank’s third quarter results are due on 27 October and chairman Sir Howard Davies wants to put the concerns over Dame Rose’s remuneration packages behind, so the business can proceed.
Dame Alison Rose, who was appointed a dame in the 2022 New Year Honours List, was forced to resign after making a public disclosure about the private banking matters of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage. A final decision on Dame Rose’s package is said to be ‘complex’ but could well be finalised in November.
During Rose’s tenure the bank moved its headquarters out of Gogarburn, in Edinburgh, down to London, and re-instated the NatWest name, while downgrading the Royal Bank of Scotland name to a Scottish-only brand.
The bank’s largest shareholder is still the UK government, whose shareholding has dropped from 53% to 46%.
BUMPER PAY DAY FOR HORNBY: Wagamama, famed for its bowls of chicken katsu curry, and with a busy outlet in Lothian Road, proves there is money in noodles. The chain, owned by The Restaurant Group (TRG), is the subject of a takeover by Apollo Global Management, a Wall Street investment firm, which has agreed to pay £700m for take the group private. Wagamama, which was set up in Bloomsbury in 1992, was bought by TRG in 2018 for £559m. TRG’s chief executive Andy Hornby, the Yorkshireman still blamed by many in Edinburgh for destroying Bank of Scotland and forcing its merger with Lloyds Banking Group, is said to be delighted. One insider told The Times, “Andy is a happy man”.
PAR LAUNCH NEW FUND: Edinburgh-based venture capital Par Equity has launched a new venture fund, Par Equity Ventures 1 LP, which is aiming to invest £100m. The firm has secured £67m to boost innovative technology companies with high-growth potential in Scotland and the North of England. Par Equity will continue raising capital to close out the full £100m target fund size.
Backed by funding from the Scottish National Investment Bank, Strathclyde Pension Fund, British Business Investments, the University of Strathclyde, several family offices and Par Equity’s angel community, the fund is designed to accelerate Scotland and the North of the UK’s most promising tech scale-ups.
Launched in 2008 by Paul Munn, Robert Higginson, Paul Atkinson and Andrew Castell, Par Equity has invested over £160m into 77 early-stage technology companies with 30 exits, including Edinburgh-based Current Health, which was Europe’s second-largest digital health exit ever following its sale to Best Buy.
STICK-UP AT THEATRE: A stick-on delight for children during the school autumn break. Freckle Productions’ delightful adaptation of Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler’s Stick Man is back in town. This award-winning production comes from the team behind Zog and Zog and the Flying Doctors. Stick Man, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Wednesday-Sunday.
QUIRKY BALLET: Inspired by the words of Joan Rivers, the films of Pedro Almodovar and the choreography of Bob Fosse, the UK premiere of Schachmatt (Checkmate!), by internationally acclaimed choreographer Cayetano Soto, is a quirky and energetic 20-minute ballet performed on a giant chess set. It provides the opening entertainment at the Festival Theatre ahead of Twice-Born, a new Scottish Ballet commission by Olivier-Award-winning choreographer and world-renowned dancer Dickson Mbi, described as an epic, mythical work inspired by ancient parables. Twice-Born, Festival Theatre, 20-21 October,
FLYING IN: Disney’s spectacular Broadway and West End musical Aladdin is about to start a run at the Playhouse including shows on four weekends. Tickets for Saturday performances in particular are selling fast. Disney’s Aladdin, Edinburgh Playhouse, 24 October-18 November.
CHOC-TASTIC: A haven, or should that be heaven, for chocolate-lovers in Edinburgh has been named as the world's top ‘hidden gem’ attraction by airline Wizz Air, based on the positivity of TripAdvisor reviews. The Chocolatarium on Cranston Street, just off the Royal Mile, came out top in the study, with 99.5 per cent of “Excellent” or “Very Good” reviews. It allows visitors to learn and taste the delights of chocolate and even make their own. Yum.
CURRYING F(L)AVOUR: Nicola Sturgeon surprised staff and customers at Edinburgh’s Gautam’s last week. The award-winning Indian and Nepalese eaterie in Meadowbank, not too far from the Scottish Parliament, clearly hit the mark as the former First Minister not only tucked into a curry, but also happily posed for pictures.
SOME EXTRA DIARY DATES FOR YOU
Irvine Welsh is returning to Edinburgh to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his classic novel Trainspotting. A Night Out with Irvine Welsh takes place at Greyfriars Church Hall (not Greyfriars Kirk), 2 Cowgate, on 3 November at 7pm. Welsh will be in conversation with his friend Kevin Williamson, author and founder of Rebel Inc, before an after party in the Eve Club next door.
The BBC are to broadcast Musselburgh Athletic’s landmark Scottish Cup tie with Clyde live on 30 October at 7.45pm. It is the first time that the East of Scotland League side have reached the second round of the famous competition. C’mon the Burgh!
The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union are in rehearsals for their Festive Fanfare with an organ and brass ensemble, conducted by Michael Bawtree, on Saturday 4 November at 7.30pm, at Greyfriars Kirk. Music includes MacMillan’s Te est Petrus, and Rutter’s Gloria.
The Edinburgh Inquirer is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.