Have your say on Edinburgh’s Colonies

On a warm and sunny first Sunday in September I joined many other people visiting the ‘Colony of Artists’ at Abbeyhill. Many talented people threw open their doors to display their work.

I hope though that visitors also stopped to admire the architecture of the ‘colonies’ themselves. For many years I’ve been an advocate of this style of building and living. I’d also just finished reading Richard Rodger’s recent book on’ Edinburgh’s Colonies’. What came through strongly was just how deliberate this style of housing was:

a distinct and independent entrance; secondly a plot….for bleaching or for flowers; thirdly water closet; fourthly a scullery with washing tubs, bath & hot water.

The third and fourth have long since become standard but somewhere along the way we have often lost sight of the importance of having one’s ‘own door’ and bit of garden.

Abbeyhill ColoniesAnother important strand was the encouragement of home ownership for ‘working men’ (admittedly this meant skilled tradesmen) which was radical for its time. Home ownership was seen as giving people a real stake in their home and area, and was accompanied by a drive to maximise the affordability of build cost and the availability of affordable lending arrangements. While in the end only 39% were owners and the rest tenants, this was still a remarkable development for the time.

One new thing I learned from the book was that the Edinburgh Co-operative Building Company (which built most of the colonies) also dipped its toe into building tenement style (a block at Henderson Street is still standing) and found these both more expensive to build and much harder to sell. Some lesson there still for the 21st Century!

The most popular council houses have been those that followed some of the colony principles, the cottage style, the four-in-a –blocks where each tenant had his or her own door, and terraces. In the 1960s councils in the cities were seduced by the apparent efficiency of land use by building high rise flats, and this was encouraged by generous government grants for such buildings.

But Edinburgh’s colonies are flourishing and sought after 150 years, while many of the 1960s high rise blocks have been demolished.

More recently we’ve seen the rash of ‘standardised’ blocks of flats across the city, with very similar styles of buildings set amid groomed but sterile open space. The credit crunch and recession has halted this onward march. A silver lining from this market failure would be if developers and planners re-thought their approach.

Traditional colony living may not be for everyone, but it does help to deliver the high density demanded by land shortage and high land prices. High density is favoured by many city planners on the ground that it gives the ‘critical mass’ to provide good facilities and transport links. It has tended to be assumed that this can only be delivered through flatted developments but the colonies model provides a different route.

I was therefore particularly interested to see a proposed new development coming forward from Places for People for a site near Easter Road which was branding itself as ‘new colonies’, and I will be closely following the progress of this application.

The current Edinburgh Council administration made much in its election manifesto of wanting to be a ‘co-operative council’ and it is worth noting that the original colonies were built by a co-operative of building workers, formed during a period of recession when work was hard to find. Another aspect of the Colonies experience which could well be adopted today.

Edinburgh East is rich in colonies. As well as Abbeyhill there are those at Leith Links, at Lochend Road and the Ryehills and Cornhills (which adopted a slightly different approach of traditional street frontages and internal stairs). The City Council is currently consulting on a proposal to make some of these ‘conservation areas’. You can read more about this on the council website and there are going to be consultation events as follows:

McDonald Road Library
Exhibition from Wednesday 3 October to Tuesday 9 October.
Planning Staff will be in the Library on: Monday 8 October from 3pm-7.30pm

Leith Library
Exhibition from Thursday 11 October to Friday 19 October.
Planning Staff will be in the Library on: Wednesday 17 October from 3pm-8pm

The consultation closes on 24th October.

It is important to protect these areas, hopefully without making it to difficult for people to be able to improve them to modern standards.

I look forward not just to the ongoing success of Edinburgh’s Colonies but to their reinterpretation for the 21st Century.

This piece subsequently appeared in the Edinburgh Evening News on 1 October.


One very busy Friday night at Portobello Town Hall

As we were preparing the tables for the public meeting about Portobello High School on Friday evening we could hear the rising buzz of conversation from the foyer – it felt a bit like it must feel inside a shop as the doors open for ‘The Sales’!

Three hundred people packed into the Town Hall which demonstrates the strength of feeling on the subject. This was deliberately not a night for speeches, neither by party politicians, nor by ‘supporters’ of particular campaigning positions on how to achieve a new school.  The format was chosen to enable as many people as possible to contribute their views, and the buzz and engagement was very plain to see.  Some present feel ‘deja vue’ because they have been round the consultation loop before, others were new to the debate.

A few have voiced an opinion that the format was biased in a ‘pro school in the park’ direction, but I spoke to people at some of the ‘tables’ who felt that it was unreasonable to be being asked to look at alternative sites yet again.  That suggests to me that rather than being biased in one direction or the other, the evening was genuinely open to the widest of contributions.

We will now transcribe all the written comments, from sheets of paper, written on the paper tablecloths or on post-it notes. Some people who couldn’t come have sent in comments and we will include these. Then the comments will be ‘marshalled’ into headings so that a ‘sense’ of what was said can be gained. Both the full transcript and the marshalled comment will be circulated to those attending and sent to the Council. Just please bear with us as it will take us a little while to do this!

A very big thank you to those who came and contributed so much.

Watch this space!


UN House Scotland

A new centre, which aims to become the voice of the United Nations in Scotland, is set to open in Edinburgh’s Hunter Square on Thursday 20 September. UN House Scotland brings together a range of agencies working to support and promote the values of the UN in Scotland.

UN House ScotlandThe new shared facility is the first of its kind in the UK, and will include representatives from eight UN affiliated organisations currently working in Scotland, including United Nations Association (UNA) Scotland, an independent grassroots body which acts as a ‘critical friend’ of the UN; CIFAL Scotland, which promotes sustainable low carbon growth; and UKNC for UNESCO Scotland Committee, which works to support educational, scientific and cultural advancement.

I have tabled an Early Day Motion in parliament to mark the opening of UN House Scotland:

That this House welcomes the launch of UN House Scotland in Edinburgh, a new centre which brings together organisations working to support and promote the aims of the United Nations in Scotland; recognises the significant contribution of its member organisations, which include UNA Scotland, CIFAL Scotland and UNESCO Scotland, in addressing issues as diverse as education, health, child welfare, women’s rights, nuclear non-proliferation, water scarcity and climate change; notes that UN House Scotland is the first such project of its kind in the UK; and shares the hopes of UN House Scotland that the new centre will improve public awareness and understanding of the important work of the UN to tackle inequality, support human rights, encourage sustainable social and economic progress and promote peace between nations.

You can check to see which MPs have signed the motion here.

I’m attending a reception to mark the opening of UN House Scotland tomorrow. For more information see the Edinburgh UNA website.


A Tale of Two Schools

Two very different schools, one the largest High School in the City, one the smallest, shared very similar feelings of anger and anxiety about the future this week. On Tuesday the City Council announced that a Report would be discussed on 9th October proposing to start a consultation process on potential closure of Castlebrae High School. On Wednesday came the news that plans for a new Portobello High School were up in the air again after three Judges in the Court of Session ruled that the council was not allowed to build the new school on Portobello Park.

It is universally acknowledged that schools are hugely important for the education of the upcoming generation, but also play an important part in local communities. Just two weeks ago I was at the Portobello Village Show where students from Castlebrae Community High School had a stall selling baked goods they had made themselves. Many people commented approvingly on the professionalism of this stall, with its beautifully wrapped cakes and bread and the smartly turned out bakers-turned- stallholders. And the goods tasted wonderful too!

Can this be the same school described as ‘failing’ so badly that one, apparently senior, council official stated that closure would be ‘lancing the boil’?

It would be naïve to deny that there is a problem with the rapidly reducing school roll at Castlebrae, now at 200, with this year’s S1 being only 21 pupils. This produces the unusual situation that the S5 and S6 year groups are both larger than S1, when one might expect the opposite to be the case. However many parents and pupils (past and present) feel that the Council is over-exaggerating the school’s ‘failures’, which has a devastating effect on morale. Threats to close over the last 5 years, although not acted upon, have increased the numbers opting to attend other High Schools. Not unreasonably parents don’t want their children’s education to be interrupted mid stream. One parent with a child still at the school told me on Tuesday afternoon that when she rang up another High School to enquire about making a placing request, she was told that she was the 6th Castlebrae parent to have called the school already that day. So many parents now fear even more children being lost to the school before the consultation even concludes.

Around three years ago the Instep programme at Castlebrae was closed down. It worked with pupils and families from the period of transition from primary school to helping students into what are now termed ‘positive destinations’, education speak for a job, apprenticeship or further and higher education.

Without doubt there are educational problems when there are low numbers, not least because of the limited subject choices pupils then face. But other schools have overcome such problems where there has been a real commitment to the school.

Raking over the past doesn’t bring a solution for the present – or the future. The local community will be making its voice heard to the committee on 9th October and through the consultation process.

At the same time as fighting to keep the school open, I think it is important to seek some commitment from the Council to Craigmillar in the event that closure does happen. Some people may think that is defeatist but there’s nothing wrong with fighting on two fronts.

Others will have their own ideas but here are some of mine:

  • We need a clear commitment from the Council to the building of a new school. There is a site and a design all ready. A few years ago it was hoped that the profits made from the sale of new homes in the area would pay for the new High School. The credit crunch and recession has made that unlikely. This school needs to be reinstated on the list of new schools the Council will build over the next few years.
  • If the main justification for the proposal to close is to improve the educational opportunities of the young people in the area, the annual savings derived from closing the school should be reinvested in the educational opportunities for these young people. For example:
  1. Just this week I sat through a presentation of a project which has worked with school leavers from 2011 who at date of leaving had no firm job or training plans. For funding reasons the project didn’t start work till January 2012. The school identified around 50 former pupils whom they thought fell into that category. It turned out that by January a fair number had found a job or college place themselves. Of the remaining 33 by the summer of 2012 the project had worked with them so well that only two remained without a job or training. The problem with a lot of these types of project is that they are not always sustained (see the closure of Instep). This work needs to continue even if the school closes and additional funding could mean that work could start earlier and continue for longer.
  2. It is often stressed how important the ‘early years’ are. Additional funding to work with parents and pre-school children to improve school readiness could pay big dividends.
  3. Additional support for children throughout primary school has also been identified as important to ensure that when pupils are ready to move on to high schools they have reached the right levels of learning.
  4. Adults wanting a ‘second chance’ to learn can find college daunting, or may have practical problems such as travel and childcare making getting to college courses difficult.

There are only 4 High Schools in my constituency so to have bad news for two of them in the same week was a blow. Many words have already been written about Portobello, in the Evening News and through social media such as Talk Porty (http://forum.talkporty.org/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=5775&start=175). My colleague Kezia Dugdale has also written a good piece on both Castlebrae and Portobello on her own blog. (http://bit.ly/QTl1bq).

I don’t want to repeat all that has been said already. A couple of points about the ‘past’. Some people have questioned why the Council went ahead with the Park plan and should have ‘known’ it wouldn’t work. But legal interpretation isn’t that clear cut. If it were all you would need to do is look up the right book for the definitive answer. After all there’s been one court decision one way and one another already. Nor is it the case that the Council didn’t look at other possibilities. Indeed it was the extensive investigation of options which is one of the reasons it has all taken so long.

The Council will have a full Report before it on 25th October. I know some people think that’s far too long away, but the task now for the Council before that meeting is to fully investigate and assess all the options which are coming forward, from appealing this decision further, to other legal options such as obtaining a ‘Private Act of Parliament’ to allow development as was done for the National Galleries in Princes Street Gardens, to other sites. And yes that may mean relooking at some options – for example if there were to be rebuild on the current site where in practical terms could 1400 pupils be schooled while that happened? While not ideal could the decant be on more than one site?

The Council needs to hear the voice of parents and the community – including parents of children not yet of High School age. My colleague Councillor Maureen Child is taking the lead in organising a meeting at Portobello Town Hall on Friday 21st September at 6.30pm to allow the community to feed in its views to the process. We hope all local elected representatives will be there to listen.


Portobello High School Public Meeting – this Friday @ 6.30pm

Last week we all learnt that a new Portobello High School will not be built on commmon good. Since we heard that news there has been great discussion about what the Council should do now, and many more questions have arisen. Do we want to proceed with a lenghty and costly appeal? Can Parliament act? Do we want to consider alternative sites?

In view of these many questions, my Edinburgh East colleages have called a public meeting to discuss the options, and feed in the views of the parents and residents to the City of Edinburgh Council. Everyone is welcome to attend the meeting this Friday (21st September) at 6.30pm. Please come along and feed in your views – we all want a new Portobello High School and your ideas are vitally important.

Portobello High School Public Meeting