Response to consultation on Picardy Place: December 2017

(NTBCC submitted the following to Edinburgh Council today [19 December 2017].)

Overview

The New Town and Broughton Community Council (NTBCC) welcomes the decision by the City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) to hold public engagement activities in connection with proposals for Picardy Place. The proposals have generated a high level of local concern and we have received an unprecedented number of representations from residents, both at our meetings and by email.

However, the consultation, though welcome, was tardy and brief. Given this, NTBCC consider that to demonstrate good faith CEC must now take time to consider and respond to the many questions raised by local residents and other interest groups, rather than press ahead with a scheme which few are convinced is the best that can be achieved. If CEC maintains this is not possible, then they should make clear why a decision must be taken before these questions have been answered.

In summary NT&BCC seeks:

  • That a final decision to be postponed to allow proper consideration of local concerns, and a better scheme to be developed in the broader context of the tram and the Central Edinburgh Transformation proposals.
  • Further explanation of the Growth Accelerator Model (GAM) process and any possible financial implications of a delay.
  • Assurances that if CEC proceeds with the gyratory, there will be a commitment to keep the triangle free from permanent construction.
  • Assurances that the CEC will engage with art experts, the authorities at St Mary’s Cathedral, and local residents to identify a location for the Paolozzi sculptures which respects the sculptor’s intentions.
  • Modelling of traffic displacement resulting from the proposed removal of the Left Hand turn from York Place at Broughton Street, and explanation of what (if any) mitigating measures CEC intend to put in place.

Transparency and genuine public engagement

There is widespread concern about what a local campaigning group describes as the Council’s “take-it-or-leave-it” approach to decision-making in this case. The previous Council held the design process too close to its chest. Whilst we welcome the decision to extend the consultation, we urge Councillors to have the confidence to make a permanent break with this undemocratic style of decision-making, and to adopt a more consensual approach to Picardy Place as it appears to be doing in planning the future of George Street. NTBCC believe this will be vital if public faith in the Council’s decision-making processes is to be maintained.

Insufficient consideration of the broader context

The current “gyratory” proposal rests on certain assumptions: the Leith Walk programme; the tram extension to Leith getting the go ahead and the work on the Central Edinburgh Transformation proposal planned for next year. Decisions on these are at least 12 – 18 months away. Given this, we urge that the City Council should wait until the longer term context becomes clearer to ensure future flexibility is built into the Picardy Place proposal.

We are concerned that if the Council chooses to make a decision now, the relative benefits of the Growth Accelerator Model (GAM) agreement between the Scottish Government, City Council and the developer will be weighed against the possible disadvantages of the gyratory plan before the full context has become clear, and without a full, proper consultation process. We seek further explanation of the GAM process and any possible financial implications of a delay.

There is a widespread feeling that the range of options considered for development has been too narrow and that there still has not been a full, thorough and transparent consultative process. A tram stop already exists in St Andrew Square to serve the new St James Centre at its western approach, and some question whether it is an appropriate use of public space to provide one on the east side of the centre as well. Some alternative and imaginative suggestions have come forward – such as repositioning the proposed tram stop further east (opposite Elm Row) to give more space for pedestrians and cyclists at Picardy Place.

It is not clear that the proposed bus interchange has been modelled and aspects such as through-ticketing been properly considered. NTBCC would like to understand what measurable public transport benefits will flow from encouraging bus passengers to switch to the tram at Picardy Place. It would also be reassuring to know whether there are any plans for Princes Street after the expected reduction in the volume of bus traffic takes place. Overall, there does not seem to have been thorough consideration of how this proposal links to plans for areas to the east, west and north.

Concerns regarding the gyratory and provision for pedestrians and cyclists

The improved separation of pedestrians and cycles in front of the Cathedral in the latest version of the plan is welcome. However many feel that the proposed pedestrian crossings are less convenient than at present, or at least no better. Some also consider that the proposal still gives too high a priority to vehicular traffic, and that more should be done for pedestrians and cyclists (especially regarding road crossings) within the proposal as it stands. They argue that the current proposal does not seek to reduce traffic capacity, and that this is not consistent with the CEC’s stated objective of traffic reduction. They point out that CEC’s own policy of prioritising walking and cycling does not appear to have been applied in this case, that a gyratory traffic system is “inappropriate” and that the proposal “sends out the wrong signal on transport priorities”.

A number of alternative schemes have emerged, two of which have received some support in the community: 1) a T junction which allows for a more extensive area of public realm in front of the Cathedral, and 2) a scheme, promoted by Sustrans, to close Leith Street to all but public transport and cycles- and reduce the lanes on the gyratory to two to allow for more cycles and pedestrian provision.

However, NTBCC cannot support either of these alternatives, as we consider that the future of Leith Street as one of the main two-way North/South routes for private vehicles as well as buses is important for the city and should be protected, at least in the short to medium term.

Moreover, many Community Councillors consider that it is not inconsistent with the overall traffic reduction objective for the Council to replace the current roundabout with a traffic layout that will enable necessary traffic, including public transport, to flow as freely as it does currently. The Council has other levers at its disposal such as improved public transport and park-and-ride facilities, reductions of city centre parking, and the proposed low emissions zone, which all have the potential to effect a reduction of traffic levels without condemning the residents of the eastern New Town and Broughton to long tailbacks, increased traffic on residential streets and circuitous routes to reach the south of the city.

NTBCC found it helpful that modelling was provided at stakeholder sessions and public consultation of both the Gyratory and the rival T junction and Sustrans scheme. We noted with concern that (based on the current traffic modelling software (VISSIM) and assuming traffic flows remained at their 2015 level) the T junction and Sustrans scheme would be likely to cause very serious traffic backup at peak periods.

However, some in the community question whether it is appropriate to use 2015 traffic flow measurements when assessing the capacity of traffic layouts in the next ten to twenty year. In particular, the Picardy Place residents association urge that no final decision should be made until a proper sensitivity analysis has been undertaken, so that the input and output variables applicable to a range of design solutions, and the relationships between these, may be modelled and assessed and a convincing case presented for the selected option. NTBCC agree that this would be a desirable approach, and far more likely to result in a good long term solution which is acceptable to the majority of the community.

There is also concern that traffic flow in a gyratory system – controlled by the synchronisation of traffic lights, combined with the need for potential tram movements through this junction - will be less effective than the current roundabout and will lead to congestion. In addition, the proposed elimination of the right turn for westbound traffic at the end of London Road is likely to channel more traffic around the gyratory and down Broughton Street. The system has been described as “a motorway in the city” by the locally-based Picardy Campaign Group. There is considerable concern about the possible side effects on residential streets in the Eastern New Town whether or not Broughton Street is closed for eastbound traffic on York Place.

We would like to know what modelling has been done of the displacement of traffic which would result from the removal of the Left Hand turn from York Place at Broughton Street, and what (if any) mitigating measures CEC intend to put in place.

Concerns regarding the triangle

One of the clearest messages from residents is that, should CEC decide to proceed with the gyratory proposal, there should be no permanent building on the central triangle. This is partly in order to retain maximum flexibility for the future, and partly in order to preserve open public space in a city where so much of that resource has been reduced in recent years. We agree with the view expressed in the highly-regarded Broughton newsletter Spurtle which has urged locals to demand cast-iron guarantees that the island is not modified in any way that precludes linking it to the public realm outside the Cathedral at a later date, should something like a T junction then be viable. NTBCC seeks assurances that if City Council proceeds with the gyratory, there will be a commitment to keep the triangle free from permanent construction.

The use of the island as open, non-commercial public space has emerged as a dominant issue. This is an opportunity which the City Council must not miss. Picardy Place is not, architecturally speaking, merely a “gateway” to somewhere else, but an urban space and neighbourhood in its own right, within the World Heritage site. Its cultural assets (the Paolozzi statues, the Cathedral façade, and the existing public spaces) should be treated with respect.

It is also an opportunity to highlight the Picardy Place area not only as a road/street junction but also as the merging of Leith to the New Town, and the wonderful vistas of this aspect of the city and the trees and landscaping which this open locale provides. NT&BCC was pleased that the latest plan retains more space in front of the Cathedral and that it is intended to relocate the Paolozzi sculptures in the vicinity. However, the proposed siting divides the sculptures between a road so they cannot be appreciated, as Paolozzi intended, as a group. As Paolozzi explained, “the sculpture along with trees and landscaping should provide a place to stop and meet on the way to shops, a peninsula from which to view Calton Hill or the rest of the Leith Walk community”.

We urge CEC to engage with experts at the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art, the authorities at St Mary’s Cathedral, the Picardy Place residents association and NTBCC to identify a location for the sculptures which respects the sculptor’s intentions.

Conclusion

The November scheme was a slight improvement on the September scheme, which gives us hope that the further postponement we seek, if agreed to, will enable both the broader city centre context to be taken into account and a substantially better scheme to be brought forward and properly consulted on.