Response to Portobello High School planning application

Dear PEDAL members and supporters,

Several people over the last day or so have asked questions about PEDAL’s submission regarding the planning application for the proposed new school in the park.  All submissions are open to the public, and a copy of the letter which PEDAL sent is below.

This response was debated long and hard within the Board.  We felt that the energy and transport issues were so much part of PEDAL’s core purpose that not to comment on them would be odd and not in line with our mission. However, we decided not to comment on the core issue of the school being built in the park as we were aware that our members had such diverse views on this matter.  Our submission was not that we were opposed to the school in the park, but that we and our children deserve better if we are ever going to move towards a more sustainable future.

Initially quite a few of the board members didn’t want to word our comments as ‘objections’, but we understand that this is the language you have to use if you want the council to take any issues you raise into account. It is unfortunate that the system is set up to be so adversarial – this approach would not be our choice.

We hope that this helps explain the decision that we took, and that we can continue to work together for a sustainable Portobello and a sustainable new high school.

Please do contact me directly if you wish to discuss this further jane [at] gn [dot] apc [dot] org


Jane Lewis (Chairperson)

Please see below the text of our letter written to City of Edinburgh Council planning department:

Dear Mr Bury,

PEDAL – Portobello Transition Town is working towards a more sustainable future for the community of Portobello. As such, the following comments are made in relation to the current proposal for a replacement for Portobello High School.

We welcome and support the investment being made by the Council in a new high school in Portobello and believe that the new school should be designed in such a way that it has the least impact on the environment and contribute to the sustainable future that we all aspire to.

However, the energy performance and sustainability standard of the proposed building would appear to be barely above that which is required by statute and we object to the lack of innovation or substantial contribution incorporated in this new building. As the building will be with us for over 60 years it is imperative that this new civic building should lead by example and aim for a zero carbon footprint. Only by doing so will we make substantial reduction in our reliance on fossil fuels.

There is a reference to photo-voltaic cells, some heat recovery from the swimming pool and the random sedum roofs are included for sustainability reasons but in total we object to the relatively poor contribution that the new building will make.

We object to a lack of commitment to a travel plan that would mean that all who are able to, walk or cycle to this site and thereby reduce congestion and harmful emissions. The traffic assessment states that this site is well served by buses and is also served by Brunstane railway station therefore access is facilitated by public transport. In particular, the proposed provision of over a hundred car parking spaces works against the promotion of public transport and is not in the spirit of either the Council’s parking standards nor the Council’s promotion of active travel plans.

Yours faithfully,

Jane Lewis

Chairperson, PEDAL – Portobello Transition Town

14 responses to “Response to Portobello High School planning application

  1. Hi PEDAL,
    I am very glad you are here in our community to champion all things green and sustainable. You have brought a great many positive improvements to Porty and I hope you carry on doing so.
    I don’t think it is fair that people are criticising you for raising concerns about this or any other Planning Application from a sustainable/green point of view – that is your role amongst many and I am very glad you are doing it.

    Looking forward to the organic market on 5th –
    PS I don’t live near the Park!

  2. As I said on Facebook I think many parents, staff and children thought we were going to be able to have green technology at the core of the principles and priorities for the new school and it will be a huge disappointment to all if this is now not the case.
    i would also hope that some “education” work is done with parents from feeder primaries as well as existing parents so that we can minimise the number of young people being driven to school…possibly this is families from outwith the catchment/feeder primaries? i think PHS must have a good record for % walking/cycling to school and could be even more if parents could be encouraged by the all round benefits? Now how do we convince the staff not to drive in???!!

  3. Hello
    I was also really surprised to note what you say above – that you felt your only option was to object. I don’t have any campaign / council experience of affiliation, just someone who happens to live very close to the park, and it was really clear to me that I could choose to object, support or comment on the proposals from the information available in the general community and on the council website (I thought an organisation such as yours would have had far more knowledge / experience in this area than me?). I have supported PEDAL in the past, but this doesn’t feel right to me.
    Very disappointed, and hope that you take some time to understand how you got into this position because for me, you have lost some of the valuable credibility and local visibility that you have gained over the last year with the local market etc.

    • Hi Lins,
      sorry you are disappointed. This has been such a contentious issue within the local community that it was extremely difficult to know how to respond on the real environmental concerns. PEDAL is in a very different position from either the campaign for or against the school.
      We were of course aware of our options to support, comment on or object to the application. However we decided that the only way for our concerns to be taken seriously enough was to word the submission in the way we did.
      We are aware that Portobello is a diverse community with different views and hope we can continue to find ways of working together whilst acknowledging our differences.

      • Jane – was anything submitted as part of the pre-application consultation?

        • Sean – PEDAL submitted comments on a range of environmental issues as part of our vision for a sustainable future at an earlier stage in the process.
          We didn’t submit anything officially from PEDAL as part of the pre-application consultation although various members made submissions individually flagging up the points in our letter as posted above. And yes, it probably would have been better to have put something in from PEDAL at this stage and to have consulted more widely with PEDAL members. To be honest I think we shied away from doing this because the issue had become such a horribly divisive one. We talked about PEDAL playing a role in attempting to enable both groups to listen to each other and hear all the issues, but didn’t have the time to put into this given the very ambitious projects we have been working on this year. And maybe things had gone too far for that to work anyway – who knows!

          PEDAL is a membership organisation and we are actively encouraging more people to get more involved in all sorts of ways. The Board is elected by the members at the AGM so I really hope more people will join, and that active members will consider standing for the Board.

          • It would seem, from what you say, that on reflection PEDAL didn’t perhaps make the most of the opportunity that arose during the consultation period to influence the final outcome. Perhaps, with your participation, the final design could have been closer to what PEDAL would have considered acceptable and it would not have been necessary to object to the application. You might even have supported it.

  4. Very disappointed in the stance taken but not surprised, given that at least 2 members of the board are prominent PPAG supporters. Agree with Lee and feel that this will not be accepted or excused by the community, including people like myself who are broadly sympathetic to your aims.

    • Hi Bob,
      Surprised you are disappointed that PEDAL are taking a stance for a more sustainable, even better school. To be clear, and as stated in our letter to CEC, PEDAL are for a new school, we just think it could be more sustainable.
      Slapping planning conditions on at this stage is not likely to get us there. Planing conditions can be used to make minor tweaks to the existing design and to ensure the build stage itself is well managed and the building is well operated but can’t ask for a fundamental re-design of the school. I recently spoke with two architects and another environmental expert who have all said that the environmental performance of the new building will not be high. People are so caught up in the ‘your either for or against’ debate around the new school that I don’t think enough folk are looking past this to broader issues like sustainability.
      BREEAM excellent rating is all well and fine but is very much a tick box exercise – the Scottish Parliament has this and is made of dense concrete (very high embodied carbon) and recently thermal images taken showed poor building work had led to heat gushing from the window and door frames. I don’t think the full life cycle costs (carbon and financial) have been taken into account for the new school. For example, Highland Council have just built a new primary school at Acharacle using a German building method that used wood for the entire structure (versus steel – another material with very high embodied carbon) and no nails or screws – just glue and old fashioned joinery. See for more. If they can manage this why can CEC? The architects for Acharacle (Edinburgh based Gaia Architects) state that the costs of building much more sustainable schools don’t always have to be higher than mainstream designs.
      The renewable energy study that CEC commissioned is severely lacking – it recommends a few photovoltaic cells. PEDAL know from our own studies that you’d need to cover most of the school’s roof in these to make any kind of dent in the electricity demand at the school and – despite the healthy Feed in Tarriff – PV cells are still a very expensive way of generating renewable energy in terms of pound invested for tonne of carbon saved. Covering the roof would cost several hundred thousand pounds. In fact this idea is beginning to look very like the ‘eco-bling’ that many architects are now against – i.e. a visible statement saying ‘we’re green’ which does in fact very little in reality. Also, I would be very surprised if PV cells actually make it to the construction stage – as the budget is increasingly squeezed and other costs escalate (as they will) this is exactly the kind of removable feature that will get stripped out from the final design. I’ve seen this happen in many other well-meaning building designs. We need use of more passive energy efficient design and materials incorporated into the building’s basic design.
      On the traffic side, it’s now well understood in the traffic planning field that you can’t just ensure a site is well served by public transport (or is cyclable or walkable to) and then hope people will make that choice over using the car, while on the other hand providing over 100 car parking spaces! You need to actively promote (and make attractive) alternative modes of travel while making it more difficult to use undesirable modes like the car. Reducing parking spaces should be the first step.
      Yes we have some PPAG members on our Board but PEDAL are not campaigning against a new school and have stayed silent on the issue of location. If we are guilty of anything then as Jane say it’s not finding the time to consult our members more widely and engage more fully in the debate around sustainability of the school design. And if PEDAL aren’t going to stand up for sustainable design in our community, who is?

      • Tom, your commitment to the cause is admirable. If only your idealism was tempered with a little realism. So the design, in terms of sustainability, is excellent but not perfect and therefore you feel unable to support the application. All very well and I accept your principled stance. But you went further than that, no doubt influenced by those die-hard PPAG supporters on the board, and actually objected. Your objection jeapordised the chance of the application being successful. The time for your expert input re sustainable design was during the design consultation. We don’t live in a perfect world and the new school will be a huge improvement on the current one and pretty much state of the art for current school design.

        • Hi Bob,
          we are aware that any response PEDAL made on this issue would not please some members of the community – largely due to the very oppositional tone of the debate.
          We did our best on what was always going to be a controversial issue, and will aim to learn from the process as always.
          PEDAL did not align itself either with the PPAG stance or to the New Portobello High School in the Park Group as you will see from reading our response. We made our own response in way that we felt best met our aims within the limitations of the current planning system. It may be that there was a better way of doing this, but we did the best we could at the time with the advice we had.
          We need to change the way we live if we are going to respond to climate change in a meaningful way, and we need to find ways of doing it together as a community, even when we disagree. This is and always has been PEDAL’s aim. And as we all know it isn’t easy!

          Very much hope this doesn’t prevent you engaging with PEDAL in the future.

          Happy to discuss more face to face if that would be helpful.

  5. That’s unfortunate Jane – you could have made a general comment (neither support or object) or a supporting comment asking for conditions to be attached. You don’t need to object for your voice to be heard. A number of the conditions added to the plan were based on points made by supporting representations.

    It’s my understanding that if all the sustainability schemes incorporated in te design work to plan then the building will have an “excellent” rating, otherwise “very good”?

    • Thanks for your comments, Lee.
      That’s interesting and different to what we’d understood. I think the main learning for us here is to make sure we allow plenty of time to consult more fully with all members over issues like this in the future so we can pool our thoughts and knowledge and find the best ways of pushing for greater sustainability.

      • Hi Jane; Definitely – learn from it and move forward.

        Now the application has been granted I’m sure there are many opportunities for PEDAL to work with the developers and school to ensure the new building is the best it can be. Perhaps you can also advise on the upkeep of the “beefed up 50% Millennium planting”, and so help it flourish?

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