City of Edinburgh Council’s Finance and Resources Committee’s response to Edinburgh Central Library vs Virgin Hotel petition, 1 February 2019. Following on from 11 December 2018’s presentation of the Let There Be Light campaign’s petition to the Education, Families and Children Committee the petition’s second request was for:
“A detailed report on purchasing back land and buildings which form part of the India Buildings hotel-led development, sold by the Council without a full consultation on the implications for the Central Library.”
This was referred to the Finance and Resources Committee, which ultimately rejected the request in favour of a ‘generic Briefing Note’ on the basis that the committee saw no real point in expediting the ‘detailed report on purchasing back land and buildings…sold by the Council’ stipulated in the petition. The meeting itself can be viewed via the City of Edinburgh Council Webcasts, see https://edinburgh.public-i.tv/core/portal/webcast_interactive/368136
A transcript of proceedings is reproduced here with speakers referenced including: Cllr Alasdair Rankin (AR), Convenor (City Centre, SNP); Peter Watton (PW), Executive Director of Resources Lead Officer; Cllr Joanna Mowat (JM) (City Centre, Conservative) – erroneously named as Cllr Jim Campbell who doesn’t even sit on this committee on the council’s webcast webpage; Cllr Gavin Corbett (GC) (Fountainbridge/Craiglockhart, Scottish Green); Cllr Mandy Watt (MW) (Morningside, Labour):
Can we go to [Item] 8.10 the petition. Erm I welcome Cllr Mowat to the Committee and as a City Centre councillor she’ll be well aware of the origin of this petition and who the petitioners are and so on and how we’ve come to this point. It’s about their concern, the concern they have about a 225-bed hotel being built on Victoria Street, which backs onto the Cowgate and so on and that, for a building for that number of rooms they are proposing to build – the hotel up at the back in the way that the petitioners feel does two things: first of all that the site’s not available for library expansion on the one hand; but also, the height of the hotel building leads onto concerns about the management of light, natural light that comes in through the windows because of the obstruction of the hotel building. So you may remember that this went to judicial review, the petitioners took this to judicial review and the court said that the council had, as a planning authority had acted appropriately and that there was nothing further to be done from the petitioner’s point of view, so I think this is really can I say the last Hurrah! is to submit the petition to the council asking effectively that council as it says: ‘ask for a detailed report on purchasing back land and buildings, which form part of India Buildings hotel-led development sold by the council’, it says, ‘without a full consultation of the implications for the Central Library.’ But as I say, the judicial review, I think has settled that issue. The only question is, is there any real point in the ‘detailed report’ because…I’ll let Peter [Watton] come in on the points about what attempt could we possibly make to buy it? Would the seller want to sell? And, could we afford to buy it? Over to you Peter [Watton]: The question is, is it worthwhile having a detailed report is what it comes down to?
Ok. I don’t think a ‘detailed report’ would add any more than what I am about to say. We don’t have a willing-seller set of circumstances. You would not, and indeed they would not be able to sell it back even if they wanted to because the land that we sold plus the assets that they already owned is now cut up in a multi-million pound contract with a funder and hotel operator to deliver a hotel. So the original purchaser of our land has since transacted with our land and other assets to create the development opportunity that has achieved planning consent. The second point is: even if you disregard that you couldn’t get away with buying back just the land that we sold. The seller would be looking for compensation for his loss relating to the bigger development that he has procured. So to close the site, then you ask yourself ‘well could the council not CPO [Compulsory Purchase Order] it?’ Now I’ve discussed it with Nick Smith [Head of Legal and Risk] and our conclusion is, is there’s not the ingredients here to compulsory purchase back the land that we sold, principally because it would have to done under planning powers; to underpin those powers you would need: a planning consent; a funded development; and, there’s a risk, you know, that the developer would fight it, and it would be a hearing, and you would be looking at a situation where the council is looking to buy back something it’s sold less than two years ago. So, when you take all those aspects into account I don’t believe that a report looking into buying it back would have any other outcome. I’ll take any questions on it.
Are there any questions then? Cllr Mowat.
I suppose it’s not really a question, but one of the things having been quite close to this at a number of stages um throughout is, is there any merit for the committee to consider whether rather than a fully detailed report whether a public briefing note could be publicly available setting out the situation and the steps that would have to be undertaken where we can’t put a figure on them, but where we’d be exposed to costs to risk to be available to give to people as a way of saying ‘this is the impediment to what stands in our way?’ Because I think sometimes that’s not clear when you do talk about [this] to people? I happen to understand this quite well having been…touched it at many stages during the process…When you do sit in a room with people [and say] that is why I don’t think I would happy campaigning on this for you and taking this any further forward um because I think you’d expose the council to a great deal of risk and a great deal of spend, is it worth having that as a Briefing Note just to, so that that can be distributed to set the position out at the moment because I think sometimes there’s people making lots of assertions which I don’t think they necessarily have that set out in an easy-to-digest form for people to rebutt that?
The committee instructs that a briefing note be prepared on the basis of what I said, I’d be delighted to do it [Briefing Note].
I don’t mind either way. I do have a worry that this has gone on a long time; a lot of water under the bridge; and, I don’t think we should be stretching it out any further. I mean I think…it feels to me that the mood on the committee is that we’ve probably reached the end of the line on this, whatever the merits or the arguments going back in time, we’ve probably reached the end of the line. if we can get ?? saying in the context of ??explaining the decision, but that the committee doesn’t believe there is any further merit in continuing that line of enquiry or something like that, does that make sense to you? What do you think? That’s my sense of where we need to get to as well.
I could do it in a generic way, in you go to buy stuff and you need a willing-seller and we don’t have one here. Full stop.
Great we’ve had our Briefing [Note].
Even something generic would be of great help to City Centre councillors in general..???from what we may hear from the petitioners and other people who objected to this development in the past and in a sense I’d like to think that would provide them with some closure..if what we say is that the committee has taken the view that this isn’t worth pursuing for the following reasons and if it was structured that way then I should think that would help…???So, as Peter [Watton] says he’s prepared to produce a [briefing] note along those lines, and so can I ask the committee to do that, if only from the point of view of City Centre councillors ???useful in terms of talking to residents and campaigners? Are we agreed? Thank you.