Tron Kirk and the Old Town

Yesterday (18 August) the Finance Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council discussed short term leasing options for the Tron Kirk.  Green member of that Committee, GAVIN CORBETT, laments its conclusion.

The Tron Kirk is an iconic (over-used word) building in the heart of the city’s Royal Mile. For decades it has lain empty although latterly it has been pressed into use for summer and winter festivals and, over the last year, it has been used by a dozen small businesses as a year-round covered market.

The medium term prospects for the Tron Kirk are good. There is a draft agreement with Edinburgh World Heritage Trust to renovate the building as a heritage hub in the heart of the city. The prospects for securing lottery funding are decent and, if so, the work will begin by summer 2017 at the earliest, by October 2019, at the latest.  By common consensus this is a good use of the building.

The debate is around what happens meantime. The choices before Finance Committee yesterday were whether to continue with the current lease as a covered market for another year, at an increased rent of £56,000 a year. Or to open its occupation to all bidders (which may, of course, include the current occupant).

Thumb Gavin-at-City-Chambers-close-815x1024There were two main issues at play.

The first was whether the current lease has been correctly observed. Independent councillor Jim Orr has made some scathing criticisms of the way the main leaseholder (who in turn sub-lets spaces to the stall-holders) has operated the Tron. These include unauthorised use as a events venue and failure to obtain or update building and planning consents. Clearly, if the main leaseholder was found to be in breach of the terms of lease it would be relevant as to whether continuing the lease was the best course of action.

Secondly, was the issue of best value. As above, an increased rent offer of £56,000 had been made. But, at the meeting, it was claimed that, if opened up to all bidders, a much higher offer in excess of £100,000 could be secured.  Income is far from being the only consideration in letting property but, obviously, if £40,000 or more extra can be obtained, that is £40,000 plus which can be invested in school buildings and libraries. So it cannot be ignored.

At the meeting, I proposed that the current use as a covered market be continued for another year so that the local traders could continue to operate as a covered market. I was backed by Lib Dem councillor Paul Edie but no other member of committee, so the alternative option of opening it up to highest bidder won the day.  At least one SNP councillor seemed to speak critically about the open bidder option but no votes materialised.  Local Tory councillor Joanna Mowat spoke in favour of the local traders but her two Tory colleagues on committee voted to bypass them in support of open competition.

Why did I support the continued leasing to local traders?

First of all, although the allegations about conduct of the lease at present are important, they remain only allegations which are still being investigated. To the extent that they are proven to be true they should be corrected during any future lease.  I did not think that they should lead to the scrapping of an agreement for continued lease which was on the cusp of being signed.  Nor did I think that potential failures on the part of the main leaseholder should so significantly impact on the main users of the building – the stallholders who sublet space.  Finally, the matter is significantly clouded by obvious personality clashes, which may or may not be justified, but which means that all arguments tend to get a bit distorted.

Secondly, on the matter of “best value”, I did not think it was clear-cut. On the one hand the council had a very substantially increased rent offer of £56,000, agreed by both parties and payable from day 1 (ie 1 September 2016). On the other hand it had the prospect of a higher offer, including, it is said, from the London Film Museum (although I have only  social media and press reports to go on here) for a Harry Potter or some-such themed outlet.  However, there is no offer on the table and there would be a void period of uncertain length (during which there would be no rent).  So any potential higher offer (which is speculative) would also be attended by higher risk.  In the context of a lease which is only a year, that is simply not best value.

There is also a more fundamental point. If the Tron is a more marketable, more attractive venue today, it is precisely because of the efforts of the current incumbents in making it so.  It is a very poor signal for the council to send to say to small businesses “Go on, bust a gut to make a venue a success. And once you have done so, we will reward that success by flogging it on to a London-based business with deeper pockets.”

There’s the other issue of what kind of High Street we want. People seem to like the covered market as an 11,000 petition attests. It adds local flavour to what can otherwise seem an increasingly homogenised, “Disneyfied” Royal Mile.  Of course, there is a subjective element there but I cannot really see what alternative bidder would do to address that better than the current short term user.

So the next time a Labour, SNP or Tory councillor bemoans the state of the tartan-tat High Street, remind them they had a choice.