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The Making of Modern Edinburgh

Posted: 4th March 2024

Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh’s city council. He says that, during his time in office, he was “unashamedly pro-development”. Here, he reflects on the recent history of a city that he believes has grown substantially in stature and where development and investment have transformed the fortunes of the city and its people.

THE subject of Edinburgh’s built environment has been hotly-debated, sometimes in a highly-charged and polarised way. There are good people on all sides of that debate, and we should respect that they all share a passion and love of the city.

Our city centre has the twin strengths of the glorious splendour of its New Town and an Old Town of startling character and beauty. Edinburgh grew rapidly from the inception of the New Town, but it still took around 80 years of development to give the city what is an undoubted triumph of urban planning. It was a ‘Golden Age’ for the city too; if not for its people, who mainly lived in the most abject poverty.

During much of the 20th century, however, the fate of the city centre was more troubled.  A report, ‘The Development of Edinburgh’, by the Company of Merchants charitable organisation, noted the “centrifugal” forces pushing residents out of the city centre with a “corresponding decrease in the (population of) city centre wards”.

It was a call for action. By the 1940s, things were considered even worse, and the council launched a ‘Lord Provost’s Commission’ on city development.  At that time, Princes Street was described in withering terms, with the report defining its mixture of a “monotonous original and chaotic modern frontage, seen in the eyes of many as irremediable”.  Large parts of the High Street were also in a state of dereliction, and homes there were described in the report as “gradually being allowed to fall into decay”.

The result in the 1950s was ‘A Civic Survey & Plan for the City & Royal Burgh of Edinburgh’ (aka the Abercrombie Plan), by planning-consultant-for-hire, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and local city planner, Derek Plumstead. This proposed radical measures that included a new inner ring road and a complete demolition and reconstruction of Princes Street. Princes Street was to have replacement buildings that incorporated a first-floor pedestrian walkway, looking over the imagined streaming road traffic). It sounds horrific and it was. It really was.

We are indeed lucky that the policy was never fully implemented, although it wasn’t until the 1980s when the plan was formally and finally revoked. During the 1950s, the city’s dereliction and decline continued. In the city’s Southside, at the infamous ‘Penny Tenement’ – so called because the landlord failed to sell it for a single penny, a gable end collapsed whilst residents slept. Many escaped death after heeding the advice of their local councillor who advised them to sleep away from the gable end.

By the 1970s, the population of the city centre plummeted and by as much as two-thirds in the now thriving Holyrood area of the city.

A book published in the mid-’70s, ‘The Unmaking of Edinburgh’, by Helen Peacock, was excoriating. I wrote an article about it, for the Edinburgh Evening News newspaper – here. The sub-heading was revealing: ‘The decay, depopulation and destruction of central Edinburgh, and argument for city centre living and a call to action!’ The book reveals the full horror of the scale of urban blight that affected central Edinburgh in the 1970s.

Quoted in ‘The Unmaking of Edinburgh’, about the formation of the New Town Conservation Committee which was set up in the aftermath of the publication of a more famous tome, ‘The Making of Classical Edinburgh’ by A J Youngson, the then secretary of the Edinburgh heritage body, the Cockburn Association, the wonderful Oliver Barratt, described the situation, thus: “The committee was duly established and began its Herculean task of halting 200 years of decay.”

Alas, the population decline of the city continued, and that task was only to really take off fully in the 1980s. The 1980s were critical in that key parts of the Abercrombie Plan were torn up by the then Edinburgh District and Lothian Region councils. By then the tide had begun to turn, and the city centre was about to bounce back.

There was also an accidental revolution. An announcement in the early 1980s of 90 per cent repair grants by the then Conservative Government turned out to be one of the greatest – and most expensive – contributions to conservation and city centre living anywhere. The scheme was vastly oversubscribed. Over the following three decades, hundreds of millions of pounds were invested in the city’s housing stock. Council officers calculated an estimate of the total spend the repairs scheme generated and arrived at a figure of £380million, which was the equivalent of a modern City Deal, all spent on housing. One City Centre tenement with wooden beams cost £1million to upgrade on its own. The policy renewed tenements throughout the city centre and beyond.

At the same time, a tight Green Belt policy drove city centre housing development to a degree that quickly repopulated areas like the Southside, Gorgie, Dalry and Holyrood, which had emptied in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Such was the pace of delivery I well remember people complaining that the council was creating a ‘monoculture’ of two-bedroom flats in the city centre, much as some residents complain about hotels and student housing these days.

Over the 25 years from the mid-80s, a slew of major regeneration projects took place or started in the city centre. These included the arrival of the Scottish Parliament, the creation of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Exchange Financial District, Harvey Nichols, Waverley Gate, Advocates Close, the council’s own HQ and, latterly, the St James Quarter development. Businesses, particularly major financial companies, were encouraged to grow and invest in the city and city centre, and they did just that until the post 2007 crash.

And students arrived in huge numbers as the city’s universities expanded. That brought increased vibrancy to many communities and gives Edinburgh an ongoing ‘brain bounce’ from those who stay. By the mid-2000s, more than a quarter of the city population was born outside Scotland. HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) have been controversial but purpose-built student accommodation has lately absorbed much of the growth in student numbers. Short-term holiday letting has grown too, and, though the population of the city centre has grown, it has changed and not always in good ways. In my opinion, not a moment too soon, short-term holiday letting is being regulated.

The built heritage and most communities of the city are in good shape. Our historic buildings in the World Heritage site are now better maintained than ever before. A recent survey by Edinburgh Council showed that just twelve buildings in the World Heritage Site remain on the ‘At Risk’ register (here) maintained by Historic Environment Scotland. Of those buildings five are part of the Royal High School campus and one is a Police Box in the Pleasance. Of the listed buildings in the world heritage site that means only 0.27% are on the ‘At Risk’ Register. That’s an astonishing achievement and surely one of the greatest achievements in restoring a city centre anywhere.

Recently, Leith was named (here) by The Sunday Times newspaper as the best place to live in the UK, something inconceivable during the ‘Trainspotting years’.

A resident of the once infamous Banana Flats in Leith commented recently in the local press (here) that “There is no deprivation as I know and remember it.”

Indeed, the Banana Flats are now Category A-listed and will be protected and preserved in a way unthinkable in the 1980s. If I could have knocked the flats down in my time as council leader and rehoused the residents in lower rise properties, I think I would have. There were other more urgent cases for demolition at Gracemount, Sighthill and Oxgangs.

There is still deprivation, there are still drug problems and people do still struggle – and people have struggled a lot more in the recent cost of living crisis, but there is very little of the chronic destitution of the past.

The city’s transformation into a year-round tourism destination has helped secure a position as arguably the strongest city economy in the UK outside London. The city’s winter festivals alongside the city’s summer festivals have made it one of the most investable tourism destinations in Europe and Edinburgh was named the world’s most sustainable tourism destination at the 30th Annual Travel Awards in Dubai.

In Princes Street, the decline in physical retail has brought rapid and encouraging change. As a councillor for more than 20 years, I helped deliver just one major redevelopment in Princes Street, the building then occupied by clothes retailers, C&A.

Within the last five years, an array of redevelopments have started or completed that include the Johnnie Walker Visitor Centre and the redevelopment of the homes of many of the city’s traditional High Street brands including British Home Stores, Debenhams, New Look, Top Shop and of course the ‘grand old dame’ of Edinburgh shopping – Jenners – is now owned and is being lovingly redeveloped by Anders Povlsen, one of Europe’s richest people. I know of no other city outside London that is bouncing back as fast or strongly as Edinburgh. Figures from Essential Edinburgh back that view up.

Princes Street’s future is looking bright, but the changes are not yet fully visible as approved plans take time to build out in the post Covid era, which has seen construction costs rocket. The future of Princes Street is not just as a shopping street. Successful High Streets will be based on successful experiences, and Princes Street is well placed to be at the forefront of a reinvented city centre.

I’m admittedly biased, but I would argue that Edinburgh is a model of a successful regeneration and transformation. I firmly believe that, unlike Icarus, when a city economy flies high, it does not subsequently crash. Rather, what happens is that it weathers downturns far better and recovers from them far more quickly than lower-performing economies. Put simply, more people keep their jobs in a downturn and those who lose them get back into work more quickly afterwards.

Edinburgh has become a stunning economic success, and it’s a success for its residents too.  In no period in the city’s history has the population lived through a period of such relative affluence and low unemployment as in recent decades, though people are undoubtedly suffering from recent economic woes caused by rising costs, COVID, the war in Ukraine and a near constant threat of another economic downturn.

There are still huge challenges in delivering enough new homes to make them both affordable and attainable. The council’s Poverty Commission identified housing costs as the single most important factor in reducing poverty. It stated that in simple terms. “There is no solution to poverty in Edinburgh without solving the city’s housing and homelessness crisis.”

As I write the Scottish Government rent cap has stopped the delivery of ‘Build to Rent’ housing dead. Significant numbers of sites in the city have been flipped to (equally needed) Purpose Built Student Housing as investors struggle to make investments work under the new regime. On the plus side two major new applications for 10,000 new homes have been lodged in west Edinburgh, and the first housing site on the land allocated for housing Edinburgh Park has been agreed. However, the delivery of sufficient homes to both tackle housing affordability and meet the needs of a growing city looks uncertain.

The city stands on the verge of delivering two decades long ambitions in its cultural infrastructure. Plans for a new concert hall and home for The Scottish Chamber Orchestra have been approved and work has started on what is a challenging city centre site. However, it is the only viable site available for such a facility and as work has already started I am optimistic that it will be delivered. Also, a planning application has been submitted for a new arena at Edinburgh Park in the west of the city. Let me declare an interest in that project as I’m part of the development team, but my enthusiasm for the new proposals is genuine, not least because as council leader I tried twice to deliver such a facility and didn’t manage to deliver success. As Council Leader Cammy Day recently stated, “We may be seeing the last pieces of the cultural jigsaw in Edinburgh fall into place.”

There are other challenges. The Bioquarter in the city seems to be going from strength to strength. Edinburgh also needs to continue to nurture the city’s blossoming tech sector. Hopefully both can continue to thrive and help strengthen the city’s economy.

The future will always be tough, and cities will always face challenges, but Edinburgh can face that future with more confidence than the vast array of modern cities. The northern fringes of Europe are not necessarily the best of places to create a strong and dynamic city economy, but that is exactly what has been created in modern Edinburgh.

Everyone, the city’s politicians, business leaders, charities and residents should work together with the aim of building on that success to make one of the best cities in the world even better.

Business Comment

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