A capital for people

WE must reassess the vision we have for this city and not alienate residents in favour of developers, says Alison Johnstone. 

Local activists protesting plans for another hotel in the heart of the Old Town underline the need to reassess the vision we have for our city. The 225-bedroom facility – descending from Victoria Street to the Cowgate – will include shops and commercial units. It will make use of the 19th century A-listed India Buildings and the B-listed Cowgatehead Church.

Heritage groups and residents have criticised the scheme for being too big – it would be up to nine storeys high, higher than the tenements which occupied the site until the 1950s. It is also a concern that the council chose to sell off what was publicly-owned land rather than using it for much-needed housing or an extension to the Central Library.

There were more than 200 objections to the scheme, yet these were ignored. The hotel scheme was also named by Unesco advisers as one of seven developments it had “strong concerns” about.

Meanwhile, down the Royal Mile, the controversial £150 million revamp of the Caltongate gap site – rebranded New Waverley – is well under way. Facing on to the Royal Mile will be a block of 146 holiday flats. Behind will be budget hotels and office blocks. The development has attracted criticism from leading cultural figures such as Irvine Welsh, Alexander McCall Smith, both below, and Janice Galloway for its uninspiring design.

Round the corner in Market Street we now have a Premier Inn and a Costa. Such ubiquitous brands, you could be anywhere. Thankfully, further along we see the Market Street Arches being opened up and populated with interesting independent food outlets and offices.

It does seem that the official vision for the Old Town is one where developers hold sway and stifle potential diversity. And there’s little sign that the authorities see Edinburgh’s Old Town as a community. It’s not simply a place to work, shop and eat but is home for thousands of people and could be home for many more.

Part of the problem is how we have allowed our city to become cloned. I’ve spoken out before in the Evening News on the prevalence of so-called “local” supermarkets, which are more commonplace in Edinburgh than any other city. We’re at supermarket saturation point, and the spread of other chain stores is hardly helping.

Back in 2010, the New Economics Foundation published a report detailing how the increasing domination of large chain stores leaves our communities vulnerable to economic shocks. The collapse of BHS is just the latest example of a remotely-managed chain suddenly causing misery for workers and leaving a huge gap in a local economy.

As Edinburgh and its neighbouring authorities pin hopes on a £1 billion City Region Deal, it’s worth considering how we rise to the challenge of creating a more stable economy, one that is rooted locally and able to weather bad times. Support for local entrepreneurs and the inclusion of residents in planning should be fundamental principles. Communities such as Edinburgh’s Old Town could become communities once more, where people are the priority.

This blog was first published in the Evening News on 7 June 2016