City region plan ‘not the stuff of nightmares’

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A MAJOR document governing land use in the region during the next 20 years which has just gone out to public consultation has been branded “a nonsense” by Borders Party leader Nicholas Watson.

For the strategic development plan (SDP) has come not from Newtown, HQ of local government in the Borders, but from SESplan, the strategic development planning authority for Edinburgh and South-East Scotland – the so-called Edinburgh City Region.

It will replace the structure plans, not only of Scottish Borders Council (SBC), but of the five other constituent local authorities – City of Edinburgh, East Lothian, West Lothian, Midlothian and Fife. And the Borders, for the purposes of land allocations for housing, business and other developments, is lumped together with Midlothian to form one of five sub-regional areas.

While individual councils will continue to produce their own local development plans (LDPs), the document makes it clear these should take account of the priorities of SESplan which has strategic control over land use, population and infrastructure.

“This is exactly what I feared,” said Councillor Watson, whose party voted against SBC’s participation in the city region in 2007. “This is an Edinburgh-focused plan that barely acknowledges the special strengths and needs of the Borders.”

The Scottish Government’s consultation on membership of the proposed city regions drew more responses from the Borders than the rest of Scotland put together. Of those who responded from the Borders, 95 per cent were opposed to joining the Edinburgh City Region.

When SESplan was formed in 2008, councillors Vicky Davidson and Carolyn Riddell-Carre, executive members for economic development and planning respectively, were appointed to represent SBC.

“I remember arguing in 2007 that this new planning authority would be unaccountable, more expensive and very difficult for the public to engage with,” said Councillor Watson. “The process has, we now find, been desperately slow and public engagement has been almost non-existent.

“The Midlothian/Borders sub-regional area is a nonsense. Residents in Peebles are now in the Midlothian/Borders sub-regional area of the strategic planning authority for South-East Scotland – a high school geography student would have served us better.

“The most disappointing aspect of the SDP is that growth still seems focused on Edinburgh and transport to and from the city. Given that businesses are more mobile than ever before there is a chance to step back from incessant growth in Edinburgh and the problems that can bring to residents and commuters, and encourage more economic growth over the wider area.”

However, Councillor Watson conceded the plan, as it stood, had some merits with the inclusion of a Selkirk bypass and major improvements to the A72 from Galashiels to Peebles, adding: “This is because our own very capable planning officers have led much of the work which I expect they found a pretty frustrating process.

“The Borders Party will fight to get us out of this nonsense and return strategic planning to the Borders.”

But the SDP was defended by Councillor Riddell-Carre who told us: “Time has moved on since the days of post runners and carrier pigeons. The world is an increasingly connected place and mobile, digital and transport connections are essential. Digital connections are vital to employment, and employment must be related to where housing is. This strategic development plan links these up.

“The clue is in the word ‘strategic’. Would we develop major improvements to roads without seeing what our neighbours are doing? Of course not, and that is what the plan is all about. It has nothing whatever to do with getting rid of SBC.

“This proposed plan now says that in the Borders we need improvements to our key roads and that a Selkirk bypass must be delivered. The Scottish Government is named as the lead partner in delivering the bypass. This is down in black and white with a completion date of 2019. We have never had this before.

“Our own local development plan will still deal with the needs of the Borders. For example, SBC decides where new housing will go.

“None of this is the stuff of nightmares. There are enough real challenges and worries facing the Borders without people trying to scaremonger over a process which is much more open than it ever was before.”

z An exhibition on the SDP will he held in the Corn Exchange, Melrose, 2-7.30pm next Thursday, November 24. Copies of the plan are available at public libraries and the deadline for consultation responses is 5pm on Monday, December 19.