by Rosy Barnes of The Friends of Craighouse

A recent sale of the land at Craighouse to a developer has resulted in the formation of a campaign group who want to preserve the green space and safeguard public access to it.

Craighouse is one of Edinburgh’s hidden gems – a cluster of historic buildings from the oldest building on the site, Old Craig, to the celebrated Sidney Mitchell mansionhouse of New Craig – complete with beautiful grounds and spectacular views. Until recently it was home to Edinburgh Napier University, but they are now moving out little by little.

This is the landscape that the Save Our Craighouse campaign is trying to protect, since it was bought by property speculators Mountgrange Real Estate Opportunity Fund in 2011, who are seeking planning permission for 160,000 square feet of new build across some of the most beautiful parts of the site.

With over 460 active supporters and a petition of over 4,000 signatures, The Friends of Craighouse is a community group of local people – mainly from Craiglockhart and Morningside but also neighbouring areas. A protest on the hill saw 300 people (including families, children and pets!) all turning out on a bleak Sunday to show their love of the orchard and their refusal to stand by and let it be obliterated by three storey housing.

Children made banners and painted signs. People in their eighties made their way up the hill with walking aids. This is a place that inspires great strength of feeling.

Hundreds of people joined the Friends after they saw what was proposed at the developers’ exhibitions last September.  160,000 square feet of new-build development (more than all the listed buildings put together), three storey houses across the beloved orchard, an excessively huge development around the existing entrance across the car-park, green space and part of the woodland – roads moved, 400 car-parking spaces, 600 residents… in an area of the city that already struggles in terms of traffic, parking and schools.

Every day locals from the communities around Craighouse walk out of the woods at the top of the site and cross into the historic orchard to have their breath taken away. Before them is one of the finest views in the whole of Edinburgh. To the left the Firth twinkles in the winter sun, to the right, on a good day, you can see North Berwick Law’s distinctive cone reaching to the sky, with Arthur’s Seat, the castle and the rest of the city in between.

It is a view that never fails to surprise and enchant. Described in the developers’ architects’ own conservation audit as “spectacular, unrivalled within Edinburgh” – it is one of the reasons, along with the 50 acres of woodland – that Thomas Clouston described Craighouse as one of the “most beautiful sites in Edinburgh” and decided to site his grand hospital here.

That these views and this landscape would be good for mental  health and well-being (not to mention good for physical well-being) was an idea that Clouston recognised and helped to pioneer. So it is sad that we now seem to lack a proper appreciation of these benefits in a country that struggles to keep up with Europe on health and well-being statistics, where more and more of our green spaces and wild sites fall to developers.

The most important thing of all to our campaign is the threat to the protected green space. Let me say that again – protected green space. Mountgrange wants permission to build across green Open Space of Great Landscape Value in a Conservation Area,  and some local nature conservation sites.  If this is granted, green space all over the city will be under threat from development, whilst brownfield sites remain undeveloped – in some cases half-developed or abandoned. The build on this area is completely against policy and contrary to Edinburgh’s Local Plan. Building on this incredibly sensitive site will put the rest of the city’s green spaces under threat.

The “developers” – and I’ll explain the inverted commas in a bit – want to make the community believe it is a choice between excessive new-build and the listed buildings falling derelict. This threat should not be bowed to. We have found out there were, in fact, six bids to Napier. The “developers” knew this was protected land before they bought the site. Indeed, further research into Mountgrange’s past projects have not proved reassuring. Over 20 years, we have been unable to find a large residential development taken to full development .

So what are the developers up to?  Are they really intending to fund a full development at Craighouse or are they, in fact, speculating on the land – with the intention of selling it on with planning permission for new-build – taking money out of the site and making it harder for the next developer who takes on the site to realise a profit without yet more new-build?

And what of the argument that we need more housing? People always seem to assume more housing is always needed? However, statistics show that what we need is more affordable housing. Do we really need more luxury housing for the super-rich? (For anyone who believes that Old Craig, proposed to be kept as just one family dwelling won’t be worth several millions –  think again. The people who buy this “dwelling” will be very rich indeed!)

And what about when these incredibly rich people with access to their very expensive lawyers move in? Will they really want to look out their sitting-room window onto the site of a massive new-build housing estate? Will they really want the general public walking through green space just outside their door? Or will they build more walls and impose more restrictions to keep the public away?

£14m of public money has been poured into the site – largely from Historic Scotland due to the site’s significance to our Scottish Heritage. That heritage should not be experienced by just a privileged few.

The proposals make no sense. It is against the Local Plan, it is against the protections on the site, it is bad for green spaces across Edinburgh and it is against all sense and logic.

Any development at Craighouse needs to recognise this site’s unique relationship between public and private.  It needs to restrict the amount of new-build to keep risks down and for the sake of the old buildings – and it needs to recognise the right of the general public to enjoy the beautiful grounds and keep accessible the external enjoyment of these extraordinary buildings – into which so much public money has been poured for the sake of our Scottish heritage.

We believe there is a positive solution to the problems at Craighouse. But it will take someone serious about creating a workable reasonable development, working in proper consultation with the general public, and with a strong track record of success to make it work.

Not a property speculator who wants to take money out of the site and sell it on.

Friends of Craighouse have a website here.

You can contact them by email friendsofcraighouse@yahoo.com

4 COMMENTS

  1. I’ve read this with interest, but I am not persuaded – this smacks of NIMBYism. It’s been reported that the buildings actually have to be abandoned by Napier, they can’t afford to maintain them and they are not a good fit for student purposes (they were never designed as such). So the properties and land are going, come what may. And I’ve read (EEN report I think) that the developers have explicitly agreed to allow public rights of access and dog walking etc, and they are providing lots of land for affordable housing. So, I’m sorry, I just don’t find myself persuaded by this piece. Sorry. If they were planning to knock down old buildings, that would be different. But they’re not, are they? They’re looking to keep them alive (as I understand it). This isn’t Donaldsons College. It looks a bit too much like NIMBYism for my taste.

  2. NIMBYism is about not wanting something built in your back-yard that is for public good. This is not for public good. Our campaign is about a much-loved public open space with spectacular views, and we don’t want an expensive housing estate built on it. The developers have said they will allow public access to the green space left over after they have built their houses. But we will have lost the most popular parts of the site. In particlar, the orchard, where large numbers of locals come to watch the fireworks will be gone.

    I don’t know where you get your information that they are “providing lots of land for affordable housing” from. I haven’t seen that. They certainly have never promised to provide affordable housing on-site. Surely this is a more extreme proposal than Donaldson’s College, where there was no proposal to build a large housing development on one of Edinburgh’s seven hills. What we also point out is that there is a lot of indications that this is a land speculation deal, with considerable doubt that the current consortium will actually be doing the development themselves. Mountgrange didn’t do Caltongate, and I have seen no promises that they will fund a development at Craighouse, either.

  3. @Colin Porteous

    Am I correct in thinking you are the same Colin Porteous that is Professor of Architectural Science at the Glasgow School of Art and colleague of the late eminent Kerr MacGregor who himself had a long association with Napier University? If so, I must say I am somewhat disappointed at your use of language such as “NIMBY” and citing the Edinburgh Evening News as a source.

    To provide some background: the estate has actually already been sold to Craighouse Limited (Isle of Man) for the sum of £10m. A representative from the development consortium has confirmed Craighouse Limited is owned by Mountgrange – as far as I know, Mountgrange Real Estate Opportunity Fund (MoREOF). It has also been confirmed that Napier University still hold a financial interest in the site. It appears that the development is proceeding as a consortium, Craighouse Partnership, currently comprising Mountgrange, Sundial, Invicta and Napier University.

    Any new build development on that site is contrary to the local development plan and as such would normally be immediately prohibited. The developers are attempting to justify the new build on the basis of a financial sustainability argument but have failed to publish any evidence to that effect. It may very well be the situation that renovating the existing buildings and replacing in situ the “Learning Resource Centre” would provide ample funding and profit opportunity. At no point has the argument for new build been elucidated further than “it needs to be done”.

    In relation to access rights, William Gray-Muir of Sundial has indeed stated publicly that access will be preserved. Although, it has not been made clear yet what level of access will be preserved: it could range from complete and full public access to a mere path around the outskirts of the site. So you can understand peoples’ concern.

    The green space and surrounding woods are, and have been, made use of by locals for decades. Families take their children there, people walk their dogs there, at the end of EIFF festival fireworks literally thousands of people congregate. It is literally a hub of the community and one of the most valuable green spaces in the whole city. Irrespective of access rights, it will become somewhat tricky to make amenity of the green space when there are buildings on top of it.

    You mentioned affordable housing – can you please tell me where you obtained that information, as I am not aware that any proposed units on the site would be classified as such?

    In relation to your use of “NIMBY”, have you been reading material produced by the developers’ lobbying/PR company, Invicta, per chance? To apply that term in this example is bordering erroneous: it isn’t the situation of an entity being proposed that would be unpopular wherever it is put, e.g. a power-station or rubbish dump, but rather that one of the most beautiful green spaces in Edinburgh is about to be decimated. There is plenty of brown-field sites in Edinburgh, for that matter locally, where new build is not only appropriate but absolutely welcome. If massive new build were proposed on Calton Hill, the arguments would be very similar.

    Personally, I welcome the upkeep of the old buildings as New Craig is absolutely stunning and almost unique in example of French Renaissance architecture outside of France; in that endeavour I wish the developers the best of luck. However, to propose to build on a conservation area and what has oft been described as one of the most beautiful and tranquil spots in Edinburgh is to my own eyes entirely a profit making venture that should be robustly opposed.

  4. I cannot understand the need for more housing in an exceptional area of outstanding beauty such as this – there’s ample land designated for housing to the south east of the city so why build here? Renovate what’s there and develop elsewhere should be the way forward.

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