CALA and former Boroughmuir site: the story so far

Since CALA Homes is coming forward with new proposals for the development of the old Boroughmuir High School building, it’s worthwhile to take a look at the story so far.

When the old school building was put on the market a few years ago, CALA was the highest bidder, offering just over £14.5m. There were quite a few other bids. One bid, which Merchiston Community Council backed and helped promote in May 2015, was from a community arts organisation called Out of the Blue (OOTB), based in the Old Drill Hall in Leith. They had outgrown their present premises, such is the demand for spaces for arts venues for clubs, activities, education, etc. The creative industries economy in Edinburgh is booming, what with year-round festivals, four universities, a lively arts scene, a film school at Napier, STV Edinburgh and the Printmakers Workshop soon to relocate to Fountainbridge. OOTB had a business plan and backers and they bid £6 million for the buildings. There was also an affordable housing element to their bid since there is a modern block already on site which could be converted for that use.

One of the merits of OOTB’s bid was that they required next-to-no conversion of the existing buildings which are classrooms, as they would retain the same basic use — education, of various sorts. So not only could they start right away, as a going concern, but if at any point in the future the new Boroughmuir High School needed additional accommodation, there was potential for leasing back some of the accommodation. The Council would not have entirely ‘lost’ the school. The OOTB initiative would also contribute to the local economy and generate jobs and it was felt that it could tie up very well with the new Boroughmuir school down the road, Napier’s Screen Academy, STV Edinburgh and the Printmakers workshop in Fountainbridge, becoming something of a creative hub or centre of arts excellence which would continue to serve the local community’s wider educational needs with good potential for cross-fertilisation of various sorts.

Despite these considerations, the Council’s Finance and Resources Committee accepted the CALA bid . However, unlike the proposal from OOTB, CALA’s was not straightforward but depended on obtaining planning permission to change the Use Class of the buildings from educational to residential. Their plan was to convert the buildings into 120 flats, which would require considerable remodelling of the interior. Because of the high bid price, each flat would be of a high specification, so would not be in the ‘affordable’ range suitable for local families or key workers. The flats wouldn’t have any gardens or green space but they would have car parking in the playground.

The site and local streets are already very congested, and one of the reasons for refusal of planning permission last time was the potential impact of so many vehicles leaving and entering the site at peak times and the impact on air quality, road safety, and congestion. The local community were almost all totally opposed to CALA’s plans and the Council rejected them. CALA appealed, but lost their appeal. The Council’s Finance and Resources Committee has recently accepted a lower bid of £11.7m from CALA; a more detailed discussion of the rationale can be found in papers for the committee meeting on 7 November 2017. So CALA have now started a fresh application for planning permission which they hope will address the reasons for the earlier refusal.

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