Edinburgh’s reinvention as a waterfront city is just one indication that the Scottish capital, with its booming economy and population, is set for a dramatic overhaul. We look ahead at the opportunities for consultants and contractors

Old town, New Town, Newer Town
Old town, New Town, Newer Town
At Western Harbour, one of Edinburgh's four enormous regeneration projects on the Forth waterfront, a craggy cliff of flats designed by Cooper Cromar and is currently being developed by Taylor Woodrow (pictured).

Edinburgh is in the throes of momentous role reversal. So long a bastion of dusty cliques of financiers, lawyers and academics, Scotland’s capital is suddenly transforming itself into a vibrant European city, bursting with high-density stylish modern buildings and a booming technology-led economy.

Nowhere is this more evident than on the waterfront. Like many other coastal cities around the world, Edinburgh is actively regenerating its docks. But whereas Glasgow and London have been redeveloping obsolete docks and warehouses in their city centres, Edinburgh is effectively invading a neighbouring town. Sweeping down to the coast from its historic bourgeois citadel around the castle, Edinburgh is steadily colonising the commercial working-class port of Leith. A full 10-mile stretch of former docks and heavy industry lining the Firth of Forth is being redeveloped at a projected cost of over £1bn.

“We are going to become a waterfront city,” proclaims councillor Terry Davies, convenor of the city council’s planning committee. The city has recruited prominent Sassenach urban stylists led by Sir Terry Farrell and including Robert Adam Architects, Foster and Partners and its recent splinter group Make, to add impact to the proposed waterfront city. Adam and Make have both been appointed this year to replace existing masterplanners, with Make’s scheme for a mini-Manhattan of cigar-shaped Swiss Re clones already being dubbed “MacHattan”.

The significance for Edinburgh is summed up by Riccardo Marini, appointed by the city council in April to help co-ordinate four hugely ambitious masterplans strung along the waterfront. “The waterfront developments will be as valuable and important to Edinburgh as the Old and New Towns,” he says, referring to the city’s historic city centre, now designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

But even if these ambitious waterfront plans turn out to be little more than gleams in the eyes of get-rich-quick property developers, Edinburgh is indisputably enjoying a long-term growth spurt. Whereas the rest of Scotland is shrinking in population, along with most British cities outside London, Edinburgh is predicted to grow by 6.2% between 2000 and 2015, attracting an extra 48,500 people to be precise. These figures are more than pipe dreams, and are laid down in the regional structure plan compiled by the city and three adjoining Lothian councils in March 2003. Meanwhile, recent research by economic think-tank Cambridge Econometrics predicts that Edinburgh will have the fastest growing economy of any major UK city in the period between 1999 and 2005.

What this adds up to is a bonanza of development over the next decade. As well as a staggering 15,000 new homes, the waterfront developments are predicted to include 230,000 m2 of office and business space, two major supermarkets, a college campus and umpteen bars, restaurants, social facilities and schools.

Taking in the whole of Edinburgh and the surrounding Lothian region, a total of 70,200 new homes are needed over the next 11 years. These would have to be built at a rate of 5000 a year, some 6% higher than the recent peak set in 1999. in addition, a £200m biomedical research centre is planned in the so-called South-East Wedge. Two new stadiums and other major sports facilities are planned for completion by 2010 at a cost of £110m. And to provide connections within the expanding city, a tram is being planned to run from 2009, with £327m already allocated by the Scottish Executive.

The only form of development that is in doubt is the one that Edinburgh has excelled in over the past 15 years – new office buildings. Edinburgh’s growth as a financial centre has taken a blow since Standard Life proposed to end its status as independent mutual life assurance company and become a vassal of the London Stock Exchange. Combined with the Royal Bank of Scotland’s relocation next year to a new 32,500 m2 corporate headquarters in the green belt near Edinburgh Airport, this points a shift from developing new-build offices in the city centre to refurbishing existing buildings.

The perception that the city’s financial sector has reached a ceiling is stimulating Edinburgh’s quest for new professional industries. As the regional structure plan states, “with three major universities and a further nine research centres, Edinburgh and the surrounding area offers a concentration of research expertise which is unparalleled in Europe”. Biotechnology has become the prime field of research of the region, which has been dubbed “Biotech Glen”, and has featured the world-famous cloning of Dolly the sheep at the Roslin Biocentre. The biomedical research centre proposed for the South-East Wedge is planned to provide 6000 jobs, and will have links with the new PFI hospital completed on a neighbouring site last year.

Edinburgh’s predicted bonanza is something of a honey pot for contractors and consultants across the UK. But that does not mean that doors are open to all-comers. Outsiders should not forget that, as Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh already has more than its share of professional firms. In some cases, such as with architects RMJM and Reiach and Hall, these firms have reputations as strong as any in the UK. As a group, they have acquired a mafia-like reputation for sticking together.

Even so, the scale of future development, combined with the city’s new aspirations and new forms of procurement, should open up opportunities for non-Scots. The most obvious route to Edinburgh is the requirement that all public-sector projects should be open to all suitably qualified candidates through notices in the Official Journal of the European Communities. The design for a new campus for Queen Margaret University College at Musselburgh in East Lothian, for instance, has been awarded to Dyer Associates of London as a result of an international competition.

Edinburgh is placing a strong emphasis on raising the density of development and on achieving top quality design. As Terry Davies puts it: “If we want to be a tolerant and safe, creative and connected city, the way we design our city must be the best. All of us, particularly developers and planners, need to raise our standards.” With this aspiration in mind, the city council appointed Sir Terry Farrell as design champion in January, launched a design initiative in February and held a design summit of key stakeholders and architects in June.

Marini, who administers Farrell’s policies for the city’s prime development zone on the Firth of Forth waterfront, raises the design stakes even higher. “Leith, Granton and Newhaven harbours were all man-made – they were built out into the sea. Transforming the waterfront now provides us with fantastic opportunities once again, and we should have the same pioneering spirit that built the docks. What the city is looking for is cutting-edge design.”

Foster and Partners and Ken Shuttleworth’s Make are two of the UK’s top exponents of cutting-edge design. Make won a national invited competition to masterplan the one-mile stretch of Waterfront Edinburgh at Granton, which is a joint venture between the city council and economic development agency Scottish Enterprise. According to Make director John Prevc, previous masterplans for the site by Llewelyn-Davies and Page and Park Architects have been abandoned. “Edinburgh needed a deep breath of fresh air,” he says. “There are excellent architects in Edinburgh, but they are restricted by the policies and barriers they already know. We have taken an innovative approach to a high-density world city that addresses the Firth of Forth.” No doubt a similar radical approach will be required of the consultants appointed to design the individual buildings once the masterplan gains approval.

On the housing front, Edinburgh has for centuries prided itself on its continental pattern of living in high-density flats. This approach has recently been intensified by the council’s new policy of even higher densities of up to 200 dwellings per hectare. For Miller Homes, which still favours the housebuilder’s traditional standard of detached family homes, this poses a problem. “Housing in Edinburgh and the Lothians is led by design,” says Brendan McShane, managing director of Miller Lower Scotland. “The planning authorities are looking for schemes that are very attractive and architecturally prominent on dense formats. Many prominent sites, such as the redevelopment of Tynecastle football ground, have up to 350 units; these involve substantial masterplanning and favour larger housebuilders. It also steers away from family housing.”

The other big problem facing housing developers in Edinburgh is water and sewage infrastructure or, more precisely, the lack of it. Alan Lundmark, planning director of Homes for Scotland, an organisation representing Scottish housebuilders, says: “Scottish Water presents problems to the development industry across Scotland, because its spending priorities give little weight to the need for new infrastructure to accommodate planned new development. Hence there is an increasing expectation that development has to fund new water and drainage infrastructure. The viability of many future developments sites is now in doubt.”

Behind Edinburgh’s well-heeled bourgeois image, there lurk several large, deprived, run-down council housing estates around the city edge. Of these, perhaps the most notorious is Craigmillar in east Edinburgh, which was taken to be the drug-infested setting for the novel and film Trainspotting. This year, one of Scotland’s three pioneering urban regeneration companies is being set up on the estate, and a regeneration masterplan to create 3200 new homes and 1500 new jobs is currently being drawn up by Llewelyn-Davies of London. Private developers will be brought in to develop two-thirds of the new homes over the next 15 years.

Building contracting is the one aspect of urban development where the newly completed Scottish Parliament building could have a major knock-on impact due to its 11-fold cost escalation. Martin Blencowe, who runs the Scottish region of project and construction manager Heery International, says: “Construction management is likely to take a knock in Edinburgh, when Lord Fraser publishes his investigation into the parliament building.”

The big players in Edinburgh are still the traditional main contractors, including Balfour Beatty, Sir Robert McAlpine and HBG. Laing O’Rourke is enjoying a growing presence. Blencowe says: “We used Laing O’Rourke for the National Galleries extension, and they have a huge amount of work for the Royal Bank of Scotland, and they are a framework contractor of BAA for the airport expansion.”

Apart from the fall-out from Lord Fraser’s report on Miralles’ parliament building, the other abiding problem for building contractors lies in recruiting a workforce in a boom development zone. “It’s difficult finding people in the most basic trades like blockwork and plastering,” says Blencowe. “They are so busy doing an awful lot of work in residential developments.”

With such growth and development prospects ahead of it, Edinburgh is indeed a land of opportunity for consultants, housebuilders and contractors. But only for those like Make, that possess design flair and a grasp of Edinburgh’s radically changing civic goals, of for those like Laing O’Rourke, with a can-do approach to competing with strong local firms.