“This was one of the worst planning decisions of the last couple of years. Maybe it could be finished off with a statue of Stalin on the roof.”
That’s the view of Borders Party councillor Nicholas Watson about the new multi-million pound Gateway hall of residence being built by Heriot Watt University at Netherdale in Galashiels – which he calls a “Stalinist monstrosity rising from the ground”.
“An important function of the planning system is to prevent people’s residential amenity from unnecessary blight,” the member for Leaderdale and Melrose said. “This is not about spoiling a view, the closeness and height of the Gateway building is really oppressive.”
Elderly residents of the Kingsknowes retirement village overshadowed by the construction on Nether Road have complained of noise and disruptions to light and television reception.
“It’s bloody awful,” said one householder: “It’s just a monstrosity. It’s going to block our sunlight. Our televisions are affected: Freeview is terrible. But they say there’s nothing they can do about it.”
“My feeling is this: it’s up, there’s nothing we can do, and they’ve just got to get on with it,” says a neighbour, posing a contrasting view. “It looks awful now, but it may look good in the future. It’s progress: they’re trying to improve housing for students. My only disappointment is its going up to a fifth floor. We don’t get any sun now.”
“We had no objection to the university building new accommodation blocks just not 23 metres from our door,” said resident Andrew Fulton, who signed the householders’ letter of objection to the planning bid approved last year. “It’s dark for the whole of the morning – and they’ve still to put another floor on.”
Andrew’s wife Roslyn also feels the lack of daylight may increase the risk of aged and infirm residents having accidents at home: “Everybody living here is old, so the darkness is a health and safety hazard.
“We are losing sleep from the noise of the night shifts and generators, and the big lights come in though our bedroom window. The first lorry arrives at 7am And the building’s behind schedule: they say it’s supposed to be ready by July, but there’s no chance.”
A spokesperson for Heriot Watt University, Caroline Dempster, denied rumours that work has fallen behind by up to eight weeks, assuring residents: “The Galashiels residences project is in fact on time and within budget, and is due to be completed by the scheduled date at the end of July.”
Scottish Borders Council’s planning committee granted permission by seven votes to three in September for the new Gateway building, which will replace the university’s existing 40-year-old accommodation and increase capacity from 218 to 279 students.
The document seen by the committee acknowledged the development “has the potential to significantly affect the amenity of neighbouring properties located directly to the north of the proposed building as a result of significant visual intrusion and harm to general outlook. Harm to privacy can potentially be overcome by planting, and loss of light and overshadowing may be considered to be relatively insignificant.
“However, such matters have to be balanced with the economic and social benefits of the development, which would involve a major investment in higher education in Galashiels.”
At the time, committee member Councillor Jim Hume explained the decision: “I am concerned about the overshadowing of householders, but that must not halt this important project.”
Councillor Donald Moffat agreed, reminding members that no householder was “entitled to a view”.
Cllr Watson, who voted against the planning application, said this week: “Officers may have recommended approval but all these points were made at planning committee and still councillors let it through. I remember thinking that people will be appalled when they see it going up. The tragedy here is that something really good could have been built, maybe even on a larger scale – it’s a huge site.
“The only reason this massive building is so close to houses in Kingsknowes Village is because it would have been difficult and expensive to provide temporary heating for the old student quarters, which are to be demolished anyway, during construction of the new building. That’s no excuse for permanently wrecking people’s amenity.”
Mr Watson’s fellow Borders Party councillor, Sandy Aitchison, added: “The Netherdale area is fast turning out to be a centre for sporting and educational excellence. It is a lovely setting with a countryside feel to it.
“It is a shame that the brutal structures which are now going up are so out of keeping with the whole feel of the area, and despite the importance of the new residence to the town of Galashiels and the Borders in general, it is a missed opportunity to create buildings which could have served their purpose whilst also being good neighbours. The importance and necessity of such buildings should not mean that anything is acceptable.
“I feel particularly sorry for the people whose whole way of life has been changed if not ruined by the brutality of the change to their outlook. Imagine how you would feel if you lived in one of these houses.”