Tahl Kaminer shines a light underneath the rhetoric of consultation and the limits of citizens’ participation.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Edinburgh City Council launched an ambitious series of consultations with locals as a prequel to the development of an urban regeneration plan for the deprived neighbourhood of Craigmillar. The process preceded the integration of broadened requirements for consultation into planning protocols in Scotland a little later in the 2000s. Yet the consultation process in Craigmillar appeared to unfold in the most detrimental fashion.
The Craigmillar Festival Society, a bottom-up local organisation which had become powerful since its inception in the 1960s, was dissolved due to mounting debt in what was perceived as power-play by the City Council. The Craigmillar Community Council carried out its own consultations regarding the regeneration plan, presenting a unanimous rejection of all aspects of the plan by locals. Another representative body, the Craigmillar Regeneration Forum, created by the City Council’s Neighbourhood Partnership, challenged the Community Council, and fielded its own candidates in the next election to take over the Council.
The growing number of representative organisations, the battles between them, and, in effect, among locals, meant that Craigmillar residents’ ability to affect the process was greatly diminished. Almost ten year later, on December 17th (2014), the Edinburgh City Council’s planning committee voted for a proposal to redevelop the contested Baileyfield site in Portobello into housing and an Aldi food store. There appeared to be unanimity within the committee regarding the quality of the housing included in the proposal. Much of the discussion therefore focused on the question of the Aldi store. Baileyfield was itself the site of a previous proposal for a supermarket which was rejected after locals mobilised to block it in 2005.
The argument on behalf of GVA developers and Aldi/Crudens was eloquently presented, but its logic was contradictory. The food store will not compete with local independent shops on the high street, it was argued, but with the large supermarket chains, yet Aldi was also presented as a very different type of retailer than Morrisons, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. The store would enhance the high street and extend it, yet the number of parking places in the proposal indicated a reliance on car-borne shoppers.
The design of the store was tailored to the high street condition by allowing direct entrance from street, by set back and public art, it was argued, yet the proposed store is nevertheless the typical suburban warehouse/box with parking rather than an ‘urban’ type. The representatives of the Portobello Amenity Society carried out a rigorous demolition of many of the arguments circulating in favour of the proposal, highlighting damage to high street shopping and traffic concerns.
In the hearing, the Portobello Community Council presented the results of the consultation it carried out. It suggested that 49% supported the proposal and 42% objected to it. The outcome was very different than other consultations carried out by the developers and by the city, needless to say. More significantly, the breakdown of the responses to specific issues shows more agreement than the 49/42 ratio reveals: the redevelopment of the brownfield site and the housing are seen as pure positives; the impact on the high street is seen as purely negative, as well as, expectedly, impact on traffic.
The area of disagreement is primarily on opening a food store, as well as on the design of the Aldi store and the housing. In all three areas of disagreement, the majority objected. So how to read these results? Were the locals, as much as the members of the planning committee, exhausted by the endless battles over Baileyfield and prepared to welcome any development, in any form? Was the tying together of a popular housing proposal with a much less popular food store a cunning move by the developers to secure approval?
The approval of the Baileyfield proposal meant contravening the 2008 North West Portobello Development Brief, which clearly states that a cornershop would be the only form of retail allowed in the area. The brief was itself created via a long consultation process, generated by the previous battles over the site and designed to enable an orderly development of the area in line with locals’ needs and demands.
To try and assess the level of participation of the community in these processes according to Sherry Arnstein’s ‘Ladder of Participation’ is hardly helpful in this context. The processes falls into the category of ‘tokenism’, as defined by Arnstein – information, consultation, placation, yet seem to have been more ambitious, having ‘partnership’ or ‘delegated power’ as an aim. However, the endless consultations in cases such as Craigmillar or Portobello and the amalgam of representative bodies appears to have eroded rather than strengthened ‘citizen power’, bringing the process to exhaustion and often obscuring the actual demands and interests of locals.
‘Too much’ consultation can be no less detrimental than ‘too little’, it seems, providing the city and particularly developers the upper hand in struggles around planning.
Tahl Kaminer is Lecturer in Architectural Design and Theory at the University of Edinburgh.