Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrification

Introduction A struggle has been going on in the Old Town of Edinburgh for nearly three years, between wealthy developers and community activists. The Council and a company called Mountgrange have been trying to invest and build in the Cannongate area of Edinburgh, and their £200 million 'Caltongate' plans have met a great deal of criticism and opposition from community activists. Mountrgrange Capital plc. is the company currently trying to develop the area. It is a very large investment capital company based in London, that is mainly involved in gentrification projects in the south-east of England. They are attracted by the huge rent-gap (the difference between the current profit being made from an area, compared to its potential after it is gentrified) that exists in the Cannongate area, and the lucrative profits that they are likely to accrue following gentrification. The plans that Mountgrange have for the Old Town include luxury flats, a 5 star hotel, expensive restaurants and bars, swanky offices. Mountgrange argue that the development will create jobs and encourage investment in Edinburgh. The main source of opposition to the planned development is from Save Our Old Town (SOOT). SOOT is the 'campaigning wing' of the Canongate Community Forum, which is leading the resistance to the gentrification. They have organised amongst other things, letter writing, demonstrations, and public meetings. It must be said that their campaign is not a negative or 'nimby' one, it includes counter proposals for the development of the area - which include an indoor market, and a full community-focussed alternative to the neo-liberal development. The threatened buildings at this point are: the old school, which is being used currently as office space; the old Sailors Ark Hostel, still being used as a soup kitchen; and a block of tenements on the Royal Mile. No-one argues that the area does not need revitalisation of some sort - the question is how this is done, and what the results will be. The Struggle Mountgrange is clever at public relations, and is doing everything legal that is within their power to stack the odds in their favour. An interesting example is the scaffolding Mountgrange have had placed around the old Sailor's Ark hostel for years, in an apparent attempt to make the building look run down. SOOT drew attention to this in the local press, by arguing that it was unsafe to have scaffolding permanently erected where many people walk. However there was no way to force Mountgrange to remove the scaffolding since they ensure that it is regularly maintained, and so it remains. In May 2006 they commissioned a questionably-designed survey, and another in September 2007 that had a DVD along with it, asking what people thought of Mountgranges' proposals: both of which un-surprisingly gave the result they wanted, and produced a response in the local press that favoured Mountgrange. It would be interesting to examine the survey to look at how the sample was determined and look to see if it was inherently biased in Mountgrange's favour - I suspect it was. City planning is a rather opaque process, but the City Council and Mountgrange have done their best, it seems, to make it worse. There has been a repeated need to object in writing to each part of the plans and their modifications, something like 15 applications in total. This has meant that opponents to the proposed development have had to repeatedly object to parts of the development rather than an overall 'No!' being adequate. It also seems that Mountgrange have, on occasions that an application has failed, re-applied for planning permission with only trivial modifications to the application. This ensures that opponents need to write again to object, and I think Mountgrange rightly assumes that many lay-supporters will become worn out by the number of times they must object. There has also been a subsequent effort on the part of the council to ignore 'pro-forma' letters (objection letters created by SOOT and forwarded to the council relatively unchanged by objectors), in an apparent effort to mitigate popular opposition. If this is successful it will of course discourage supporters from objecting in the future, and may invalidate their previous objections. Many people will not have the time or technical knowledge of planning regulations to write unique objection letters, and so this will result in less objections being made. SOOT is, as I understand it, currently trying to undermine this move from the council with a legal challenge. The council and Mountgrange appear to have collaborated in setting a false agenda around which we are to debate the development of the Old Town: We must either re-vitalise it as Mountgrange propose, or leave it to decay. This is a false debate, and one which the Save Our Old Town campaigners are doing their best to expose. SOOT have held imaginative publicity-gaining protests to change the direction of this debate, that have been important in raising awareness and support. These include selling rocks from the demolished buildings of the old bus depot, and singing witty xmas carols to councillors and developers on their way into a champaign reception, and they organised a street party in May last year, and have exposed some of the cosy relationships between many councillors and Mountgrange. They have opposed every trick and barrier Mountgrange has put in the way of open and honest consultation, and worked hard to mobilise people to object to the plans. The flip side to the pro-development narrative is, of course, that the people at the bottom of the ladder stand to lose out. Sociologists and urban geographers have for decades been warning about the dangers of such developments, stressing that the inevitable rent and price increases in the areas concerned cause displacement when landlords capitalise on the higher property prices by increasing rents or selling up. Economically vulnerable people are often displaced to poorer areas. The rent-gap increases in surrounding areas, encouraging similar gentrification and pricing-out of the less well off. The culture of the area invariably changes, with expensive bars, cafes and restaurants opening up to cater for wealthy upper-middle class taste; with the resulting cultural homogeneity it will share with most cities. Social networks are disrupted or destroyed by the displacements, and the psychological harm done to those more vulnerable people effected is unmeasurable. We have an advantage that cities like Glasgow and Newcastle do not have, Edinburgh's status as a World Heritage Site, and the city therefore requires a more careful planning process that often involves the World Heritage Trust and the Cockburn Association, and this gives campaigners an edge. That said, campaigning in Edinburgh is working in its own right. Not only has pressure from SOOT forced Mountgrange to have a large and thorough consultation and to modify much of its plans, but developer-friendly council bureaucrats have complained that developers are being put off by 'nimby' groups in the city, with Trevor Davies, the ex-city planning leader (notorious for giving the finger to SOOT protesters singing cheeky carols last year) arguing that developers will turn away from Edinburgh if they continue to meet resistance. Furthermore, Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has set up what it calls a 'task-force' to lobby the council in the interests of private developers. This 'task-force' is headed by Manish Chande, the wealthy chief executive of Mountgrange, and includes representation from 25 developers. One would have thought that such wealthy companies would not need such a lobby, but apparently resistance to gentrification is so strong that this has become necessary. This strongly suggests that community campaigning groups like SOOT are succeeding. Conclusion Debates in city planning are often framed in this way: there are two choices, to make the changes the developer/council wants, or everything is left to decay. Many people will remember the council housing Stock Transfer Program being posited in this way. There is a third way that is proposed and exemplified by the activities of SOOT that the developer does not want to discuss, and the council is resistant to - an alternative model for development that is inclusive and participatory, and has a social and community focus. A focus on social housing, local amenities like parks, community centres, a focus that retains the culture, character and social networks that already exist in places like Canongate. Virtually none of SOOTs activities have been reported on Indymedia, showing a worryingly large gap between local community campaigners and our 'activist community'. We need to support local campaigners in their struggle against violent neo-liberal economic policies and anti-democratic tendencies in the city council. I believe we should do this because strong community organisations like Cannongate Community Forum will lead to a culture of participation and democracy in our city that needs to be encouraged. There is evidence that we can win, and I believe that activists, like myself, living in Edinburgh should get involved in these important struggles against gentrification and neo-liberalism on our doorstep. The consultation period is over, and the final decision on the development will be made by the council on the 6th of February, but there is still time to get involved in this campaign, and the many others occurring in Edinburgh. Sources Save Our Old Town: www.eh8.org.uk An umbrella of community action groups, Edinburgh at Risk, that has links to other community struggles in Edinburgh: http://www.edinburghatrisk.org/ the Scotsman newspaper: www.scotsman.com (search for 'caltongate') Mountgrange website: www.caltongate.com Edinburgh Against Stock Transfer: http://www.defendcouncilhousing.org.uk/dch/resources/EdinburghtabloidNov...

Comments

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Welsh Andy

I didn't think there was any social housing under threat with this development. To me the biggest loss with this development is the Ark and the lovely old bus depot(RIP). I was under the impression that all the housing in the area was privately owned. I'm more than likely wrong though. And how exactly is SOOT in the wrong? I may be mildly ambivalent about the campaign but I'm at a loss as to how one could describe it as being "wrong". Good luck anyway, it's always nice to see folk sticking it to groups like mountgrange who want to turn our cities and towns into glass fronted clones of one another.

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Anonymous

"Virtually none of SOOTs activities have been reported on Indymedia" I think SOOT are in the wrong, so I don't put up any articles about their activities, the same way I don't bring attention to the many other campaigns that I think will have a net negative effect to the community.

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Makhno

Corrections, comments and additions are all most welcome!

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Anonymous

Could you explain your reasons for thinking SOOT has a net negative effect on the community? This campaign, as shown above, is about affordable housing in the centre of town being replaced by private office blocks and yuppie housing, as is happening all over Edinburgh, all over the UK and all over the world. The planning process is not transparent and ignores lack of public support. For me, this campaign is grass roots resistance to big business and corrupt councils - possibly one of the best campaigns going on in town at the moment. This is about preserving what little sense of community we have left, and building on that through community-based regeneration as opposed to top-down solutions steam-rolled in by officials who just want affordable housing away from their financial centres, out of sight and out of mind. Would be interesting to hear your reasoning.

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Makhno

i had hoped to provoke some discussion :) id be interested in hearing why you think SOOT is harmful also.

Mission Yuppie Eradication Project

By Makhno

here is a link to another article about anti-gentrification struggles in san francisco, 'Mission Yuppie Eradication Project', posted today: http://scotland.indymedia.org/newswire/display/4988/index.php and a link to its source: http://www.infoshop.org/myep.html this bit from the infoshop link was interesting!: "Tips on Making Yuppies Pay -Vandalize their cars: Mercedes, Lexus, Porsche, Jaguar, and anything that your family wouldn't be able to afford. -Throw shit at Yuppies as they drive by, especially if they are on their cell phones. -Don't patronize Yuppie establishments. -If you are sitting with friends near Yuppies, spread rumors about increasing crime in the neighborhood. -Organize your community against developers who help gentrification. -Organize your co-workers against your Yuppie boss. -Work with your neighbors to find out who owns what in your neighborhood -When Yuppies invade it means higher rents, so organize a neighborhood Tenant's Association to keep a lid on rents. -Don't listen to Yuppie radio stations, which includes your local NPR affiliates."

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Anonymous

"Tips on Making Yuppies Pay"?! What the fuck planet are you on? They're fucking human beings. What happened to you to make you so hateful? Its people like you that drag the whole activist community down. There are hundreds of thousand of people dedicating hours and hours of their lives to constructive activities and they're all wasted thanks to destructive fucks like you. If you can't do constructive things Please do humanity a favour and don't get out of bed, OK? Just think of it as making the yuppies pay by re-directing the money they pay in taxes to supporting your benefits rather than making the cities they live in a brighter or safer place.

regarding "tips on making yuppies pay"

By Makhno

Anonymous Poster said: "Its people like you that drag the whole activist community down" I was merely linking to another article someone else posted to indymedia scotland yesterday: i was not advocating any of the content just pointing it out. So you ought to direct your aggressive comments to its author! That said, i certainly wouldn't mourn the loss of an SUV. And much of the advice the author gives seems to be constructive - for example setting up tenants associations, and other community organisations. Though i think throwing stuff at people while driving is a bad idea! The effective tactics in a town like edinburgh would probably be those currently employed by SOOT, rather than smashing SUV's which would alienate public support. I think we should organise a well-publicised, large and vocal demonstration outside the city chambers (or wherever the decision will be made) for the 6th of february. If the decision goes against SOOT on the 6th of february then we should occupy and use the buildings scheduled for demolition. we should probably announce this publicly some weeks before the council makes their decision: so that they can take into consideration the fact that people are prepared to occupy the buildings to delay demolition, something that will be expensive for mountgrange. And whether we win this particular struggle to save the old town, it sends a message to other developers that developing in edinburgh is time consuming and costly due to grass roots organising.

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By save our old town

Thanks for writing the article Makhno. A few corrections...The campaign has been running for just over 2 years now. The Canongate Community Forum is not a community council. The Old Town Community Council, has though objected to the plans also see http://www.edinburgholdtowncc.org.uk/ Sadly the Ark had to stop running the homeless drop in provision in The Saliors Ark building (building 80% owned by developers Mountgrange) at the end of June see http://www.savetheark.com/ As one of the founding members of The Save Our Old Town Campaign I would like to thank those who have supported the campaigns efforts to raise awareness and the damage Caltongate would cause to this World Heritage Site. The campaign has folk from all walks of life, ages and political views. The campaign is non partisan. I too wonder what "net negative effect the campaign will have on the community" is it the indymedia community or the one I am part of here in The Old Town? The campaign is not anti development of the former bus depot, but supports sensitive, sympathetic and sustainable development which is not merely profit driven. Heres to 2008 bringing the best outcome www.eh8.org.uk

Re: Dirty tricks on the Royal Mile: Mountgrange and Gentrificati

By Anonymous

What is the fascination with retaining things as they are ?. conserve this conserve that. Why don't we re-instate princess street loch, knock down the new town, dismantle the castle!, then we can take it back to the way it used to be, before developers built all of edinburgh and we can go back to fields. Why preserve one period of time over another. If developers had never been allowed to build anything then what communities would exist to be broken up?. I am sympathetic to the fact that many developers and contractors use cheap and profit driven methods of construction, "see new quartermile development and the turf laid on compacted clay at middle meadow walk" this will never grow just die. As with the Donald Trump case in Aberdeen this is probably too big a decision to be handled by mainly corrupt councillors and should be decided by the new scottish parliament. This way meaningful consultation can be made as a democratic process with the area being developed in a useful way to the existing residents. as a great architect once said people are afraid of change, and I think this is what it is a fear of change. The development will never satisy everyones needs so consult, object, demonstrate, protest a development of some kind is better than no development, Don't be afraid of change be part of change.