Tree campaigners defeat flight museum

Tuesday February 4th 2020

Museum-of-Flight-Protest

A protestor’s placard outside the planning committee meeting. Photography by Lee Live: Photographer

Written by Local Democracy Reporter, Marie Sharp

A £15 million new visitor centre for the National Museum of Flight has been refused planning permission after it required nearly 300 trees to be chopped down so historic planes could be moved.

Museum chiefs told East Lothian Council’s planning committee the proposed site for the new 80-metre-high hangar was the only acceptable place and had been chosen after long negotiations with Historic Environment Scotland.

And they said that the centre would bring 40 new jobs to the county, as well as pledging to replace the felled trees with a new woodland to the south of the site featuring “1,000 plants including 788 trees”.

However, councillors rejected their claims and voted to refuse planning permission during a meeting which saw protestors clapping in the chambers and banging a drum outside.

And they told Gordon Rintoul, director of National Museums Scotland, who made the case for the new centre, to go back to the drawing board, insisting they did not believe all options had been explored.

The plans for the ‘Ready for Take Off’ project would have seen a new visitors centre created under a giant hangar which would house two historic planes which are currently kept outdoors at the museum site at East Fortune, as well as Concorde.

The hangar in which Concorde currently sits would then be used to bring a further plane indoors.

Dr Rintoul told the planning committee that the condition of the planes sited outdoors was deteriorating and without bringing them indoors they could end up being scrapped.

They include a Comet which he said was one of only six left in the world.

The new centre would also be used to relocate the public entrance to the museum, car parking, a shop and cafe from the original site, which is a Scheduled Monument and cannot be built on.

Dr Rintoul said that the tree belt, which sits next to an ancient woodland known as Big Wood and contains a mixture of mature and young trees, with the majority classed as ‘early mature’, had to be removed to bring the aircraft into the new centre.

And he said the replanting would create a bigger woodland, adding “we are not a fly-by-night developer who makes a commitment to plant and does not live up to it. We are a public body”.

He said: “We have looked very carefully at all the options and this site is the only viable one. If the project does not go ahead on this site, it is very difficult to see it going ahead at all.”

The proposed site is on the Gilmerton estate, south of the current museum.

Councillors questioned whether a field to the west of the Scheduled Monument had also been looked at and were told that Historic Environment Scotland had said it would not allow the hangar to be built there either.

The planned removal of the trees had led to a public outcry, with an online petition against it gaining more than 3,500 signatures.

The Woodland Trust told the council that replanting trees would not replace some of the ancient woodland which it said would be lost if the plans were given the go ahead.

And Councillor Norman Hampshire, planning convenor, pointed out that East Lothian councillors had declared a climate emergency last year.

The committee was told it was likely the new trees would take 15 years before they equalled the positive impact the felled woodland had on the county’s carbon footprint.

Fellow committee member Councillor Fiona O’Donnell said: “When this council took a decision about climate change we used the word ’emergency’, not down the line, so we can’t lose 15 years.

“I think the loss is not a price worth paying.”

Three councillors supported the plans, which were recommended for approval by planning officers, including Provost John McMillan, who is the administration’s economic development spokesperson.

He said: “I believe in the round this will be doing something for public benefit.”

His views were supported by councillors Lachlan Bruce and Katie Mackie, who pointed to the jobs benefit of the new centre and increase in tourism.

Councillor Mackie said: “One of the things I love about East Lothian is its natural heritage but the introduction of 40 jobs and need for people not to have to commute to Edinburgh for work is really important.”

Councillor Colin McGinn told the committee that a young boy who attended the meeting with family told him when he came in to “save the trees”.

He said: “This is about their future. If we make a decision to cut down 300 trees we are doing him a disservice.”

Councillor Jeremy Findlay refused to support the planning application, saying he was not convinced all other options had been considered.

He said: “I would encourage the Museum of Flight to go back to Historic Environment Scotland and have further discussions with them.

“I am not convinced they will turn round and say no, we have not seen any evidence they will.”

A National Museums Scotland spokeswoman said: “We are disappointed by the outcome of the East Lothian Council planning committee meeting.

“This is an important project for East Lothian. It will ensure the preservation of historically important aircraft, it will also create jobs and play a transformative role within the local tourism economy.

“We will now take stock and review our next steps.”

The committee rejected the planning application on the grounds it would result in the loss of 299 trees, to the detriment of the climate of East Lothian and the council’s climate policy, by eight votes to three.

Councillors who voted against were Jeremy Findlay, Sue Kempson, Fiona O’Donnell, Neil Gilbert, John Williamson, Kenny McLeod, Colin McGinn and Norman Hampshire. Voting in favour were councillors Lachlan Bruce, Katie Mackie and John McMillan.

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