In the last week Built Environment Forum Scotland has supported hustings in Glasgow and Edinburgh with a focus on the built environment in advance of the local government elections on the 4th May. The events were organised by locally based organisations, the New Glasgow Society and Edinburgh World Heritage. What did we learn at them?
All candidates declared their love for the heritage of the respective cities but the Edinburgh candidates were slightly more specific in also declaring support of the draft Edinburgh World Heritage Management Plan – reflecting the specific interest of the organisers. Across both events there was acknowledgement that things were not perfect, that communities needed to be listened to but also that local authorities were tied by budget cuts and lack of relevant powers on some issues.
Business Rates were a hot topic in Glasgow – but controlled by Scottish Government – and combined with retail unit management by City Property – with several councillors on the Board – came in for significant criticism. Land Value Tax was supported by some Glasgow candidates and affordable housing was also a shared priority. Candidates tended towards the general comment on existing policy and processes, wanting better building maintenance, use of compulsory purchase orders etc. but the SNP candidate specifically proposed a “city architect” and a “historic Glasgow zone”. Details on the role and power of the city architect are unclear and as was pointed out on Twitter, Glasgow already has a Central Conservation Area. You can follow some of the online Twitter commentary at #ngsqt, informed, illuminating and entertaining.
The Edinburgh hustings had a stronger focus on short term lets, and the perception of an over provision of hotel and student accommodation within the city centre. The candidates were united in acknowledging that the local authority does not currently have the powers to address the phenomenon of Airbnb and have asked The Scottish Parliament to legislate on it. There was a general acknowledgement that Edinburgh now had adequate hotel provision but some candidates wished to see hotels spread to the outskirts of the city. A similar tack was taken on student accommodation, that it needed to be spread rather than concentrated – the reality is that student accommodation has been opposed by communities wherever it has been proposed, central or suburban.
Both events became more heated as they progressed, Edinburgh quite significantly with a loud cheer for the audience member who said that the public had been betrayed by the City of Edinburgh Council. Councillors were asked why they should be voted for and the reply was ‘based on our record’: the absence of published voting records on council committees makes this rather difficult. Questions that remain unanswered were on how to improve building maintenance and whether local authorities retained enough conservation skills in-house.
Both events revealed the public passion for the built environment and the level of expertise available within communities. They also reveal the complexities of decision making and the lack of joined up thinking within local authorities which leads to the planning process becoming a focus for communities to express dissatisfaction with a wide range of issues not subject to planning legislation.
The Place Standard Tool is being increasingly adopted for community engagement and it seems that “influence and sense of control” frequently receives low scores. The audiences at these hustings were also clearly frustrated by this and while there is no quick fix to this within the current system, continuing local dialogue with the successful candidates is necessary and hopefully BEFS Advocacy Toolkit will provide a starter for those wishing to begin.