It was the city “that Paris ought to be” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, a place so beautiful that George Eliot thought she “had waked in Utopia”. But now Edinburgh has been subjected to a damaging analysis by its own architectural supremo, Sir Terry Farrell. He says it in “dire need of regeneration”, gripped by “the forces of lethargy” and in danger of becoming “second rate”.
Farrell was appointed design champion in 2004 by the City of Edinburgh Council, but after three years of mounting frustration in the role, he has rounded on the council, attacking its leaders for their lack of vision, its “atrophied” planning process and a prevailing complacency which could “damage” the city.
His comments come as Edinburgh embarks on the most far-reaching building programme since the New Town was commissioned in the late 18th century. This will see the creation of a new seafront development in Leith, the rebuilding of the reviled St James shopping centre and the development of areas around Haymarket and Waverley Stations. It also includes new building on three sites at the heart of the Old Town which could have a dramatic impact on the city’s traditional architecture.
Farrell had not even been shown the plans for Caltongate, one of the most controversial of the Old Town proposals, but said he was dismayed by the almost every aspect of the council’s moribund approach to planning. This he contrasted with the dynamism of Manchester and the Medway towns in Kent, where local authorities and business leaders had combined to retivalise failing urban centres.
“Edinburgh is a town which has dire need of regeneration. But nobody believes it – because there is a fantastic festival and the world heritage site is in the middle,” said Farrell. “There’s no-one beginning to think that they even need a vision. Not just at officer level – it’s very apparent there – but also in the elected leaders. There is no belief that they need do anything other than sit back. I despair of Edinburgh recognising that city making, which is the greatest tradition in Edinburgh, is ongoing.
“Towns on their knees like Manchester after the IRA bomb, or Medway after the royal naval dockyards closed, can see it. They are in there playing the bigger game. Here I can’t make any headway.”
Visionary city making and wealth creation would only come through proactive planning said Farrell, but the Edinburgh system works in the opposite way, devolving big projects to private developers who sought approval for their plans through the council’s development control department.
This entirely reactive process encourages “shooting and sniping” he said. Changes in full-time personnel and in the political leadership of the council were unlikely to improve the situation, particularly as the authority faces a £14million deficit this year.
The last Labour administration approved several big projects by the architect Allan Murray. While Farrell had no criticism of Murray he said that proactive planning would attract architects of the highest calibre.
Farrell added that £600m tram system adopted by the council had likewise been selected with little consideration of its visual impact. Its carriages require raised platforms and intrusive safety poles. “If you do it wrong, it will be detrimental,” he said.
When he embarked on his unpaid role as design champion, Farrell’s ambition was to help Edinburgh “get its act together,” he said. “Now it’s in danger of becoming a bit of a failure. The impediments to getting things done in a local authority set-up are major. One is up against the forces of lethargy. They are so great. You need a city leader, you need chief officers, a supportive council – it’s like Tony Blair turning Labour round, for good or ill – you need that kind of will and a group of people behind it. Edinburgh needs that.”
If Farrell had his way, Princes St would exploit its position as “the best urban promenade in the world”, abandon its attempt to compete with out-of-town shopping centres, and retain substantial retail only at its east end. Pavements should be wider, al fresco dining encouraged and apartments and boutique hotels should flow into upper floors currently used for storage by chain stores.
Moira Tasker of the Cockburn Association – the Edinburgh Civic Trust – welcomed Sir Terry’s intervention. “There must be more coherence, vision and leadership, and less short-termism,” she said.
Farrell added that often only a crisis provoked civic leaders to take city-making seriously. “Manchester had the bomb. Then they had to do something,” he said. “What will make Edinburgh people feel they’ve got to do something?”
A spokesman for the council said: “Sir Terry’s appointment indicated that the council was passionate about design and determined to secure the highest standards in design for an international capital city with World Heritage status.”