Gavin Corbett ponders big choices for Leith and for a Repair and Re-use Centre in the Old Town.
Among the six Green councillors in Edinburgh I am probably the one that likes spreadsheets most. Over the last 20 years at Shelter Scotland I have also spent many a happy hour writing briefings and dissecting the Scottish Government’s annual budget. I once even wrote a tenants’ guide to housing finance.
So it was only natural, I suppose, that I should agree to be the Green councillor on Finance and Resources Committee, the first meeting of which is next week (31 July). And, among the 40 plus papers going to Committee there are, to be sure, a couple of papers on budget monitoring but it is sheer range of things that are coming before this Committee that is striking – and few look like spreadsheets to me.
And there are weighty decisions too. To take one example – a set of proposals for improving Leith Walk and nearby streets now that the trams – for now, anyway – are stopping short of that thoroughfare. The community, quite rightly, has said that if we are spending over £5.5 million on the area, we need to be more far-sighted than simply re-instating things as they were. Both the Council and community group, Greener Leith, have held consultation exercises which have raised lots of new new ideas – more trees and bushes, better pedestrian crossings and, perhaps most ambitiously, a dedicated cycle-way. As yet, the Council’s proposals don’t really reflect that so far. I want to ensure that the programme and funding we agree best integrates all the different works that need to go on and reflect the aspirations of the community.
It is too good an opportunity to miss. The same is true of another decision we have to look at – the leasing of a shop on the Royal Mile. The Royal Mile is, of course, Edinburgh’s most iconic street and yet there is consensus that it is not always well-served by the quality of the shops located on it, “tartan tat” being a consistent description – although that is at its worst and not all shops catering for visitors are in this category.
On the Canongate, on the lower end of the Royal Mile, there is vacant shop for which the Council is seeking a tenant. It is an important choice. It can let the shop to a commercial retailer catering for the visitor market (more of the same, in other words) or it can respond positively to the overtures made by Remade, a newly-forming social enterprise which would like to use the premises to establish a repair and re-use centre, the first of its kind in Scotland. Remade needs time to develop before it is in a position to pay a rent closer to what the market would dictate but I believe it should be given that time. Because I think it is about sending a signal about the kind of economic activity which the Council wants to support; and where better to send that signal than on our oldest and most famous street?
The city has to be grateful for the economic boost which we get from visitors. Such a beautiful and vibrant city as Edinburgh will always have tourism as a major provider of jobs. But it is also a fragile base and we need to diversify – there is no doubting the enormous potential which the green sector has. Renewable energy is often cited in this regards, but there is just as much potential in repair and recovery, skills which often seem all but lost in Scotland now. Only a mile away, the Bike Station, has shown just what can be done with cast-away bikes acting as a primer for a flourishing business which is now nationally-acclaimed. I think Remade can follow that same path and reflect equally well on Edinburgh as leading the way, refurbishing ICT hardware, household appliances and textiles.
So this is not just a choice about a tenant for a modest-sized shop. It is about the direction of travel we want to set for jobs of the future.