We are a group of concerned Citizens brought together through Our mutual love of Edinburgh, and the call to:
“Think Global, Act Local. ”
Currently dear Edina, this beloved capital, City of Literature, World Heritage and Enlightenment, is suffering from what some have come to refer to as an ‘Age of Endarkenment’.
Like many other fine cities, in these times of ‘austerity, post-truth and zombie capitalism’, the Council is selling off valuable public assets without any public consultation to discuss alternative options while supporting soulless speculative ‘development’, described as ‘architectural wallpaper’, the cumulative effects of which are now seriously threatening the World Heritage status of the City.
From national monuments to historic buildings to green fields and priceless greenbelt, the widespread disposal of public assets is being sanctioned by a desperate council billions of pounds in debt, due to a litany of maladministration (tram fiasco, dodgy PFI school contracts, statutory repair notices etc, etc) and the imposition of ‘austerity’, precipitated by the chicanery of the global banking system…
Yet as a reality check, Adam Smith, one of the great figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, whose statue keeps watch over the City Chambers on the Royal Mile, affirmed that:
“All money is a matter of belief”!
While we’re supposedly “all in this together”, contending with drastic cuts to services and the sell off of key public assets, the rich continue to get richer… might there be a connection?
This brings to mind the quote attributed to John Adams, 2nd President of the United States of America:
“There are two ways to control and enslave a nation;
one is by the sword, the other is by debt”.
Mindful of the famous Scottish town planner Patrick Geddes’s call to “Think Global, Act Local”, the situation to which the Council finds itself has parallels to that exposed overseas by whistle blower John Perkins, who gave a recent TED talk revealing “the story behind the story”:
In this talk Perkins states:
“Democracy depends upon transparency…
it demands that we question our leaders
and our government policies”.
Reflecting on the situation in Edinburgh, the fact that the former Royal High School, a building integral to the City’s international reputation as “The Athens of the North”, is implicated in the current malaise, reveals the dire extent of the situation.
It could be said that those public servants who have sanctioned and supported the filching of valuable public assets without public consultation to discuss alternative options, are “a parcel of rogues in a nation”, to use the famous utterance of Robert Burns, to whom Andrew Carnegie was a great admirer.
‘Let There Be Light!’
The ‘Let There Be Light’ campaign has been established in this context, specifically in response to the case of the India Buildings debacle, one of the so called ‘Edinburgh 12 Initiative’.
This ‘initiative’ is overseen by EDI, the Council’s ‘arms length’ development group, who claim to “care about Edinburgh and work closely with its communities to understand how our work can benefit them”.
However, the ‘Edinburgh 12 initiative’, which includes the development St James Centre, South St Andrew Square and the proposed hotel development of former Royal High School, has attracted wide spread controversy.
In many instances policy guidelines have been seriously ignored and grave concern disregarded, leading to condemnation from Citizens, civic organisations, visitors and even UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which holds government responsible for the care of World Heritage, warning there is an “ongoing threat” to Edinburgh’s World Heritage status, stating:
“Regrettably the current situation… appears to have tipped the balance inappropriately, away from conservation, towards inappropriate development. There is an urgent need to reconsider, revise and re-frame current approaches to development… so as to deliver greater focus on values, to incorporate appropriate expertise and to improve engagement with the community.”
India Buildings on Victoria Street, in the heart of the Old Town, was initially earmarked for a ’boutique’ hotel, rescuing the former Registrar’s Office, which has lain empty for ten years and is now listed on the ‘Buildings at Risk’ register.
Planning permission for the ’boutique’ hotel was granted in 2008 and broadly welcomed by the local community.
However, the building continued to be neglected and then in 2013 was featured in the ‘Edinburgh 12 initiative’.
In late 2015, after closed door dealings with the Council, a new planning application for the India Buildings hotel was submitted, incorporating three significant public assets, the adjoining building of 11-15 Victoria Street, the Cowgatehead Church and most controversially the gap site of the Cowgate, otherwise long set aside for the benefit of the Central Library
The relatively benign ’boutique’ hotel proposal had now morphed into an incongruous, large 225 bed hotel which would now have serious implications for the City and the local community.
A one page summary of the case is available here:
Consequently the local community vociferously objected to this proposed hotel, unanimously supported by the Old Town Community Council in addition to surrounding community councils, all local ward councillors, MSP’s, MP, Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, Cockburn Association, Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust, Edinburgh Old Town Association, Saltire Society, Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust and others. Yet in the face of the controversy and opposition the Council granted planning on the 25th May 2016.
The Council meeting which made this contentious decision, described by a member of the public present as ‘a stich up’, is available to view online at:
The local community objections are made 56 minutes into the hearing.
The closed door sale of the implicated public assets, sold for a paltry sum of £3.5 million, represents a terrible betrayal of Edinburgh Council, in particular the Cowgate gap site, which now fundamentally compromises the future of the Central Library, the key cultural asset integral to Edinburgh’s title as:
The 1st UNESCO World City of Literature
The self seeded sycamore tree that watched over the Cowgate gap site, now tragically felled by the developer, was a testament to how long this land has been waiting patiently for city guardians to extend and re-vision the Library, honouring the aspirations of Carnegie who at the opening ceremony in 1890 stated his desire that the Library:
“grow in usefulness year after year and prove one of the most potent agencies for the good of the people of Edinburgh for all time to come.”
Tragically, with hundreds of libraries closing across the UK, this campaign recognises the urgent need for the library service to revision its relevance in the 21st century as a ‘potent agency’ for life long learning, literature, culture and excellence, at the heart of community, for the benefit of all.
Though some have questioned the need for libraries in this open source, digital age of Wikipedia, how foolish we would be if for some reason the internet ever went off-line!
While Carnegie may have been maligned as a ‘robber baron’, his legacy to Humanity, and those who collectively toiled to create his immense wealth, established thousands of public libraries throughout the World, representing perhaps the greatest act of enlightened philanthropy of modern civilisation.
“A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert. There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library; this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration.”
Above is the legendary front page news from the previous ‘SOOT’ campaign (Save Our Old Town), from Jan 2014, where local Councillor Joanna Mowat coined the infamous phrase “not hideous enough to reject!”
Such an opinion hardly seems to fit the UNESCO criteria for development in a World Heritage conservation area, which is actually supposed to ‘ENHANCE‘ the Outstanding Universal Value of World Heritage, and neither seemed to be particularly faithful to the spirit of democracy in representing the views of local constituents, who objected overwhelmingly in their thousands.
A very sad day for civilisation, in which the gloves came off and regard for economic development came to strangle community, culture and heritage, setting the Old Town on a dangerous course which caused the Director of UNESCO, Mechtild Rossler, to write to the Government the following year remarking:
“I would like to express the World Heritage Centre’s strong concern about the state of urban conservation in Edinburgh in general… related to urban development within the boundaries of the World Heritage property, its buffer zone and the surrounding area… The quality and pervasiveness of development projects being pursued without due consideration for conservation is deeply worrying.”
To fundamentally compromise the future of Edinburgh’s Central Library, the finest library Carnegie gave to the nation, would be to degrade the reputation of Edinburgh’s UNESCO status and deny future generations their cultural inheritance, thereby leaving us open to the accusation of being:
“Too Wee, Too Poor & Too Stupid.”
Besides taking the land set aside for the Central Library, to add further insult should this ‘hideous’ hotel be built, its bulk would considerably overshadow the Library, an appalling fate for such an important building, a beacon of the Enlightenment, purposely designed for natural light, whose motto above the entrance is:
In addition to this, the Council have taken their betrayal further by disposing of the B listed Cowgatehead Church into the bargain, closing down what was a well used, long serving, NHS clinic for the most vulnerable and needy in the community, to be sacrilegiously converted into yet another licensed venue, integrated into the hotel.
This is a very deliberate process of ‘gentrification’, colonialisation through the construct of money where those without are denied their human rights, forgotten and disregarded.
While there are some who lack sufficient insight, sensitivity and empathy to care, particularly those who don’t know the area well, there are many in the local community who would rather contend with a few humble homeless souls than a plethora of soulless hotels and rowdy pubs catering to tourists, students and party revellers, whose drunken excesses disrespect and trash this ancient neighbourhood at the heart of the nation on a nightly basis.
The enticing £3.5 million deal, which is supposed to represent ‘best value’ for the public purse, also includes the B listed property of 11-15 Victoria Street, adjoining the India Buildings, to be subsumed into the hotel.
This property would otherwise readily convert to much needed residential accommodation, as suggested by the local community, now in critical decline due to the onslaught of commercial speculative pressure catering to the visiting transient populations.
In all of this the local community have been disregarded throughout and these historic and culturally priceless public assets sold without ANY public consultation, or even a tendering process, to determine alternative options.
Following the decision of Edinburgh Council to award planning permission for the highly contentious hotel, campaigners appealed to the Scottish Government for the case to be ‘called-in’. However Ministers declined this appeal, responding to the many letters of appeals that the proposed development was NOT considered of sufficient merit to be regarded as of ‘national significance’.
With the political process having failed to act in the public interest a Judicial Review was pursued in the hope of overturning planning consent. This required a considerable effort including raising thousands of pounds:
However, in spite of the independence of the Judiciary the Court repeatedly deferred to the planning judgement of the Council (evidently formed exclusively by the developer’s data), that the proposed development would have “no adverse impact”.
Moreover, in aspiring to seek Justice, due to the very restrictive nature of the current judicial review process neither the merits nor the facts were considered. Consequently the Court declined to find in favour and quash planning consent. For more details:
With the political process and Judicial Review having failed to safeguard the public interest the remaining option is to lobby for Section 65 of the Town & Country Planning Act 1997 Scotland, which has the power to revoke planning permission if deemed ‘expedient’. For more details:
In addition to pursuing conventional strategies various direct actions have been taken to raise awareness. For more details see:
An Enlightened Alternative
If this campaign is to prevail, as an alternative proposal if the Council is not prepared to uphold its duty of care towards the Library, the local community, backed by thousands of signatures in support of the petition “Let There Be Light In Edinburgh’s Old Town”, wish to acquire and develop the public assets using crowd source funding and the recently passed Community Empowerment Act, realising a World class re-visioning of the Library that would help to safeguard the library service and enrich the reputation of this City of Literature, World Heritage & Enlightenment.
Given the high regard in which the Central Library, the City and the legacy of Andrew Carnegie are held, the local community are confident that funds can be found.
The campaign has enlisted the support of established artists and other public figures and hopes to gain the support of a certain notable writer associated with the Old Town who is known to have written among the most successful children’s books ever published!
With enough backing we believe that the developer and financier of the hotel would respect the wishes of the local community so that the land can be developed to honour the remarkable legacy of Andrew Carnegie.
Your support and help could make all the difference in realising this brilliant opportunity in turning around our fortunes, for the sake of Edina and the future enrichment of Civilisation!
Thank you for your consideration!