Pandemic planning needs to keep the City alive now – or there shall be nothing left open for the future

Pandemic planning needs to keep the City alive now – or there shall be nothing left open for the future

by Cllr Jo Mowat
article from Thursday 15, October, 2020

EDINBURGH CITY COUNCIL is at it again, planning the big picture future whilst the city slowly stops turning.  

Wednesday this week brought a report to the Planning Committee to commission a ‘Strategy for Princes Street and the Waverley Valley’. Keeping a straight face, the Convener told us how Edinburgh was the engine for Scotland’s growth and that we needed to react to this by commissioning this exciting new strategy.  

Well forgive me for not getting excited but we’ve been here before; Jan Gehl Studies in the 1990s and the 2010s; the String of Pearls strategy about rejuvenating Princes Street on a block by block approach; there are lighting strategies for the city centre; acts of Parliament protecting the gardens and the Waverley Valley; City Centre Transformation projects; details of the correct stone to use – but what we lack is a delivery strategy. 

Frankly, the planners are too late with this one – with expressions of interest in West Princes Street Gardens via the Quaich project – Johnny Walker in the former Frasers building – interest in Debenhams and Jenners – the market has told us what the future might be.  But, and there is a but – these were all ideas conceived and started pre-Covid – so whilst planning work continues we shall have to wait and see if delivery follows. Previous experience is that by the time the Council has got its boots on the developers will have marched to the top of the hill and growth may be hard to find.

In recent years, it has been events in Princes Street Gardens (West and East) that have aroused most interest and ire from residents. You would think that these would be part of such a wide ranging, cross-cutting strategy.  But of course they won’t because that would cut across another project that is being worked on by another part of the Council.  So, despite an ambitious remit which cuts across council departments a new strategy can’t look at the area of most concern to residents. 

This is how it is with Edinburgh City Council.

All this is taking place against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic.  Unfortunately, it seems necessary to say that in wanting businesses to survive you don’t want anyone to die or for the virus to rage out of control.   The damage that will be done to individuals and the city as a whole if we don’t address the current here and now crisis will be much more significant than if we delay a Strategy on the Waverley Valley and Princes Street.  And we have a crisis on Princes Street – not the scandal of the awful paving that creates enormous puddles when it rains because we didn’t sort the drainage when the pavements were extended (although that is a problem) – but the businesses who are slowing dying from lack of trade.  

I am in regular contact with many of these businesses and the losses they have seen are horrifying, they do not have bottomless pockets and many are opening when they can, only to trade at a loss in the hopes of better times ahead.  Administration councillors may get a warm glow as they commission the writing of  important policies about how to shape the future – ensuring that we build upon the heritage that has been left to us by our forefathers – but addressing the current problems here today should take precedence.   I am sure the ghosts of Adam Smith, Provost George Drummond, George Watson, Daniel Stewart et al would look askance at the lack of activity on this matter in the City Chambers.

City centres are not the same as a local high street which, if well used by those in its hinterland can be supported locally.  They are designed to serve a larger population and when that supply is cut off they will struggle to survive.  Here is the conundrum that Covid-19 presents us with – how does that apogee of human endeavour, the city and its very core survive a virus that thrives in crowded spaces?  Some of the outputs of gathering can be replicated using digital means; Zoom meetings can stand in for a physical meeting and the agenda attended to efficiently.  A desk for deskwork can be sited anywhere – in the corner of a sitting room where I am typing this from!   Whilst we have proved this can be done we also know what we are missing – the ideas sparked by seeing something out of context or running into a colleague, friends and lovers found in the pub or coffee shop, impulse purchases and spontaneity have been replaced by a drudgery of routine.  For many, too many, this a routine in which visiting the city centre does not feature. 

If the centre is to survive and not become a historic relic we need to find a way of using the public spaces to engage safely.  If you can shop safely, and go to a café safely why not a restaurant?  The businesses are exhausted, those who own and run them on their knees.

This is the capital city of a country whose Government encouraged tourism and prioritised it as a way of growing the economy.  There is a clear duty here to recognise that the City Centre, at the heart of which sits the Waverley Valley and Princes Street, needs action and delivery now – not a finalised strategy in Autumn 2021 – take care of today to save tomorrow.

Jo Mowat is Conservative Councillor for Edinburgh’s City Centre ward and previously wrote about Edinburgh’s planning issues on ThinkScotland here: Planning Edinburgh's future in the time of Coronavirus

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