Friday, March 04, 2011

Adam Smith’s Panmure House Public Inquiry (2nd and 3rd March)

I sat through the 2 full-days of the Panmure House Inquiry – the only person in the public seats who did so, out of the dozen or so others who attended for parts of the time, sharing the toil of the official attendees - 14 officials and the Reporter – who were compelled to endure the long hours of laborious testimony and procedure.

For this quasi-judicial exercise; the Reporter sits at the head of a ‘v’-shaped pyramid table-setting, with the parties for and against sitting opposite each other, and about a couple of dozen members of the public and the press, sitting in two rows of chairs forming the pyramid’s base.

For those brought-up on TV diet of US Court-room dramas, this was a very mild and typically Scottish affair, following a staid legal process (no ‘objections’ allowed, or called, no histrionics, no badgering witnesses, no ‘judges’ calling opposing counsel to order, and no ‘last minute’ surprises). Counsel for both sides led their witnesses (who, like them were sitting down throughout) through the reading of their prior-written evidence, followed by close questioning by the other side’s legal counsel of the details of their evidence. The papers relating to the Inquiry were in several six-inch thick ring-binders, requiring the witnesses and the officials to take the time to find the relevant documents and read the relevant subject (a process often taking time to execute, with regular delays while some documents were re-sorted and re-ordered, or, in a few case, ‘borrowed' from their opposing counsel).

I thought more than once, that this polite and patient behaviour was conducive to less pressure than a viva some PhDs candidates experience. It was very polite and indulgent, and conducive to getting at facts rather making for entertainment.

The witnesses for EBS explained why it had proposed to erect a glass-atrium at Panmure House in between the arms of the surviving ‘L’ shaped building (it used to be 'T' shaped) to contain a glass circular stairway to the first and second floors, instead of using a existing stairs (built in 1955) inside the house. The recent - and thereby current – legal regulations for access to new and renovated buildings require accessibility for disabled persons and this requires larger turning-space for wheel chairs on each floor of Panmure House. Other regulations for public use require male and female toilets (not a consideration either in Adam Smith’s time, or when the house had been ‘renovated’, otherwise internally wrecked by Edinburgh City Council for a ‘troublesome’ youths’ Club in the 1970s).

As an EBS Education Centre it requires the highest standard of internal fittings and fixtures with the toilets sited on each floor, which would not be possible if internal stairs, plus disabled access, was installed; hence, the external stairs in the atrium, and a lift for proper disable access, with the requirement for the same entry and floor access as other visitors. The suggestion given by Scottish Heritage was for all toilets to be located in the basement, this discriminating against everybody having to descend through two floors and more than awkward for receptions for over 20 people or larger audiences at lectures and seminars.

The objectors were from Scottish Heritage, the World Heritage committee, the Edinburgh Council Planning Officials, and the Old Town Conservation people – most of them fulltime officials, well paid for and funded by the taxpayer. Supporting the EBS plans were the elected representatives of Edinburgh City Council (the spokesman for the City Council was the Convenor of the Planning Committee, and local home owners association). The Convenor was an experienced elected representative, who knew as much about the planning regulations and procedures as the Scottish Heritage full-time paid witnesses, and had been party to many planning decisions over years of long service.

The main case against EBS’s plans was that the glass atrium would have an ‘adverse effect on Panmure House, as a 17th-century ‘Grand Town House, though it was no longer set in ‘handsome gardens’ or a grand area. Indeed, immediately opposite Panmure House is a dilapidates warehouse, next to some modern deteriorating flats (apartments), and a major 1960s council- owned development that is more than a bit of an eyesore. The original entrance to Panmure House, through Panmure Close, is via a locked iron gate, and some recently built residences surrounded by high walls. Panmure House is now approached through a 1960’s archway in Loch End Close, which nearby buildings and walls intrude on visitors’ views of it. Moreover, all the internal panelled walls, floors and original main-door entrance are now gone and only the outside wall remains. The roof is in a parlous state and needs early, if not immediate, repair and attention to avoid it collapse into the building.

EBS plans to restore the original roof and replace the current narrow entrance (it was ‘converted’ poorly in the 1960s from an original window space) with a new one on the basement-level floor. The glass atrium would rise from this level to below the current roof-line; the dilapidated and now rusty guttering would be replaced with glass guttering. The atrium construction allows for total see-through from the street to the original 17th century and (newly cleaned) stonework. It will be a striking enhancement of the original architectural heritage and contrast with the slum-like nearby buildings built in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The main aspect of Panmure House is its association with Adam Smith and the other luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment who lived, or visited it, which gives it its ‘special national and international historical merit’ – a main leal criterion of a building’s claim to be a heritage site worthy of conserving in the legislation.

A Scottish Heritage official giving evidence against the EBS case claimed that while acknowledging the historical importance of Adam Smith to Panmure’s significance, she also claimed – to the astonishment of the officials and supporters of EBS’s proposals - that the conservation undertaken from the 1950’s (including the deplorable destruction of Panmure’s remaining internal features) was now also part of Panmure’s heritage (even the Reporter queried what she had asserted and noted her affirmative confirmation!). For myself, I was astonished at such nonsense – that it is a necessary part of Panmure’s history (it happened, yes) it was certainly not any part of Panmures ‘heritage’ worthy of saving. Which is what heritage and conservation are all about, certainly to people not employed by Scottish Heritage.

The object of a public inquiry for the opposing parties is to persuade and convince the Reporter, who deliberates for about a month or so, and then reports to the relevant Minister in the Scottish Government his decision, which the Minister usually accepts. There is a further right of Appeal to the Court of Session, which is decided by Scottish Judges under Court Rules.

Whether or not EBS would accept the time and expense required for such an appeal (and the distant prospect of an appeal to the new UK ‘Supreme Court’ - the jurisdiction of which is in question in Scotland) is an open question. As a Professor Emeritus, I am not longer privy to EBS’s higher-level counsels and anyway cannot prudently speculate. I do know that the legal costs and salaries of the taxpayed officials of Scottish Heritage are comparatively inexhaustible, while EBS, as an educational charity, is not.

Meanwhile, we must hope that Panmure’s roof stays in place.



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