Edinburgh Monopoly: the council, hotels and the EICC

Gavin Corbett explains why Green councillors were the sole opponents of a decision by the council to take a 25 year lease of a 365-bed hotel at Haymarket on behalf of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre.  The text below is a modified version of his speech at Finance Committee on 5 March 2020.

The council has declared climate emergency. It has set a zero carbon target. The UN has said that we have ten years to take radical action to keep planet warming within 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial levels.

If we are serious about all of these things then it requires a mobilisation of public and private sector, of citizens and corporations, of policy and finance, the nearest equivalent of which is what happened in the Second World War.

Business as usual goes out of the window. And that’s all in the next ten years. In other words, now.

So what does that mean for the council and the decisions we take? It means that we have to look very carefully at the decisions we take, especially long term decisions and the assumptions on which they are based.

In the decision today we are asked to commit to a lease of a very large hotel over a 25 year period, with no break points, which is based on business as usual. And the business in question is the assumption that tourism and especially business tourism will continue pretty much as normal. It’s one where a significant part of the model involves tens of thousands of people flying across the world to attend events for a few days. It does not matter how much the events themselves are held in venues or use hotels which improve energy efficiency or procure low carbon food or get rid of disposable cups – all of which they should do, by the way – the core business model itself is literally unsustainable.

So if we back the hotel proposal today we are saying quite clearly that for another 25 years business as usual will prevail. In a way that is at odds with our carbon commitments. More than that we are betting the city’s finances on just such assumptions. In fact, it’s worse, we are placing a financial imperative in the way of future decisions. In the debate about the scale and nature of tourism and the supply of hotel bed spaces we are giving ourselves skin in the game.  It’s Edinburgh Monopoly where all things are solved by buying a hotel on Park Lane and sitting back to watch the money roll in.

It’s the same as Lothian Pension Fund betting pensioners’ future on the fossil fuel industry. It’s the 21st century equivalent of putting all your eggs in the Beta Max basket and watching as VHS wins the day. Except we aren’t talking about home movies here. We are talking about the future liveability of our planet.

Now it may be that members of the committee are thinking that the scale of change that I’m describing won’t happen and that therefore the risk that I see isn’t as acute. In moments of pessimism I get that. But, if so, we need to be honest with ourselves. Are we prepared to accept the scenarios that the science tells us are inevitable, indeed are already happening? Or if not, what magical solution are we pinning our hopes on, that will emerge and be implemented in the next decade?

So there is a future for EICC of course and there is a continued future for a tourism sector which welcomes visitors to our wonderful city but it’s a very very different future to what we have now, which is why I think this is the wrong project for this time.