Constructive city critic

The Cockburn Association has opposed several recent major schemes in Edinburgh but the arrival of new director Marion Williams could signal a different approach, writes Robert Boddy.

Marion Williams
Marion Williams

Five days before Marion Williams started work as director of the Cockburn Association, the charity won the largest and most expensive campaign in its 134-year history as the Scottish capital's civic watchdog.

Despite funding problems, the organisation hired a QC and expert witnesses to attend the inquiry into plans for the former Morrison Street goods yard at Haymarket. Its Save Our Skyline campaign argued that the 17-storey hotel at the centre of the development would have a damaging impact on views of the Scottish capital's world heritage site.

Ministers ultimately agreed and sent applicant Tiger Developments back to the drawing board. Architect Richard Murphy subsequently launched a not so veiled attack on the association, complaining that Edinburgh is haunted by its past. "You would not have the New Town if we had had this timidity and terror of our heritage, which is what it is boiling down to now," he railed.

So it is significant that one of Williams's first acts in her new role will be to meet Tiger Developments to discuss its revised plans. "We will be getting together to see where we go next," she reveals. "If you accept that Haymarket needs something, you have to agree what is required."

Asked whether she supported the campaign, which she describes as "going the extra mile to say no", she hesitates before answering "yes", although she admits that this is not an area of the city she knows well.

Although she says she enjoys a good argument, Williams is using her first weeks in the post to build bridges and change the media's recent portrayal of the Cockburn Association as an opponent of change. This image, she insists, is undeserved. "When you do your research, it becomes obvious that we don't always say no, far from it. Our comments are constructive, educated and well advised."

The association is named after Lord Henry Cockburn, who campaigned to protect and enhance the beauty of Edinburgh. Its founding aim was to be "a means of rapid and effective communication of public opinion on the work of the town council". It was dedicated to the improvement of Edinburgh and the neighbourhood. In 1964 it adopted the subtitle Edinburgh Civic Trust.

The association has just two full-time employees, including the director, but can draw on an impressive range of expertise among its 1,000-strong membership. In recent years it has been a vocal critic of major developments such as Caltongate and Quartermile. But membership has slipped and one of Williams's priorities will be to put the finances back on an even keel.

She sees this as achievable and believes that it goes hand in hand with widening the charity's appeal. Her past stint chairing Newcastle United Football Club's fans liaison committee is one of the experiences she intends to draw on. "We have to show that it is worth being a member," she says.

"It is akin to a football club, where you have to ensure that there are young people coming through to replace older season ticket holders. The job is about people acknowledging that they can help shape their own neighbourhoods and spaces. We should be going into schools, universities and health forums talking about community engagement."

Williams brings varied experience to her role at the heart of Edinburgh's development debate. As a district councillor in Braintree, Essex, in the 1990s, she was heavily involved in planning issues at a time when the town was expanding rapidly. She went on to spend five years as parliamentary adviser to former Labour transport and local government minister Stephen Byers.

Most recently she was development manager of the OneCity Trust, a charity set up by Edinburgh City Council to raise awareness and tackle social exclusion. Perhaps not surprisingly, given her political background, she is confident of maintaining the association's "very healthy" relationship with the local authority.

"I expect to meet officials regularly, not just when we are upset with each other. Neither side should be surprising the other," she contends. She is broadly supportive of Scotland's planning reforms, welcoming the emphasis on pre-application consultation and hinting again that the association is to adopt a more inclusive approach under her leadership.

"I would like to be a part of the positive change in planning so large sums of money are not wasted entering into adversarial arguments," she concludes. "We can be a force for good, enabling and educating people to engage with the process. There is still a time and place for jumping up and down, but it would be great if those occasions were rare."


Age: 52

Family: Divorced with two sons

Education: Certificate in education, religious studies and English, University of Cambridge; degree in politics and environment, Open University; advanced postgraduate diploma in environmental management, Open University

Interests: Newcastle United Football Club, hill walking, rock concerts, cinema, books, photography, designer knitting

2009: Director, Cockburn Association

2007: Development manager, OneCity Trust

2002: Parliamentary assistant to Stephen Byers MP

2002: Chairwoman, Witham Braintree and Halstead NHS Care Trust

2001: Political and press adviser, Labour Party Eastern region

1996: Contract manager, learning services, Essex County Council

1995: Councillor, Braintree District Council

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