John McLellan: A great year, yes or no?

The trams finally started to run after what seemed an eternity. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
The trams finally started to run after what seemed an eternity. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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The referendum, Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup; you would have to have spent the last 12 months on board the Rosetta comet probe not to realise this has been an extraordinary year in Scotland.

Nothing will match September’s vote and its aftermath for impact on our lives, but throughout 2014 other events in Edinburgh for which the headlines were not so big but the implications were considerable.

And as always there was plenty going on which had few implications at all, just good old-fashioned news and plenty to keep the pub chat flowing.

January

Perhaps getting ready for the contest which lay ahead, Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale went into bat for Leith cyclists, saying that Easter Road was a rush-hour death trap and challenged then transport minister and ex-marine Keith Brown to try it for himself. He refuses, says it’s not that bad, and when I give it a go the most dangerous people I find on wheels are other cyclists.

A planning application for a new housing estate at Newcraighall goes through despite Cockburn Association chief Marion Williams’ anguished plea for a halt to be called on the “onslaught” of housing developments. In what is a bad start to the year for the conservation lobby, the much-criticised Caltongate plan for the great hole in the ground where the New Street bus garage used to be also wins approval.

February

A row kicks off about a plan to build student flats on the site of the St Leonards Homebase store, with locals arguing there are too many students living nearby already and Labour MP Sheila Gilmore agrees. Isn’t it odd that when you have a major, world-leading university in your town how the students like to live nearby? Still what’s a multi-million pound centre of ­global excellence got to do with it when you’ve got to wait an extra ­couple of minutes at the Costcutter while an informatics research student from ­Taiwan counts his change?

March

Famous writers who live in very nice places continue to object to the development of a very big hole in the ground overgrown with a ­forest of weeds which used to be a red-brick bus garage and before that a gas works. Asking them to produce a scheme they all liked would be like asking them all to write the same book.

I go on a test tram ride which proves to me how good it is, but also how it doesn’t really go where many people live. Just as it gets close to a densely-populated area, Leith, it stops. And just as the tram gets set to prove its worth, Keith Brown rules out any government cash funding the completion of the route to Ocean Terminal.

April

The 134-mile coast-to-coast John Muir walk is launched which is expected to boost the economy by £40 million a year. I welcome the plan because it goes past the back of my house but safe to say we’ve yet to see any sign of the expected army of high-spending, bush hat-wearing conservation fans.

Nicola Sturgeon announces work can start on the St James Quarter by providing £61m of public money to help cover lost rent and rates while the existing centre is demolished. Eight months on, it’s time developer Henderson Global got cracking.

Edinburgh Rugby decamp to Meggetland while the Murrayfield turf is relaid and give grapple fans a taste of how much better the pro-game would be if only they got out of the mausoleum which is the national stadium.

Tragedy strikes when a wall in the changing rooms at Liberton High collapses and kills pupil Keane Wallis-Bennet. If any good comes out of the dreadful event, it is that the school safety and rebuilding programme is accelerated and plans for new facilities are approved by the end of the year.

There is great sadness across the entire political spectrum at the death of Edinburgh MSP Margo MacDonald after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. In what is often a bitter and cynical world, Margo was a beacon for decency, plain speaking and good humour.

May

Undaunted by a previous brush with the enemies of free speech, Ukip leader Nigel Farage comes back to Edinburgh for a party rally at the Corn Exchange and a vow to drown him out comes to nothing.

Even though there has been no formal inquiry and therefore no-one specifically found to have been at fault, city community services director Mark Turley is suspended over the baby ashes scandal at Mortonhall Crematorium. As the man ultimately responsible for a vast portfolio of responsibilities, the buck stops on his desk.

He escapes blame for the council’s refusal to name a street after the late Hibs legend Lawrie Reilly, or the fact that they could name one after his Hearts counterpart Willie Bauld but hadn’t got round to it. Both are now being resolved.

Another tragic death is that of Rev Tom Sinclair, knocked over by a car reversing out of Waverley station because the driver, an elderly man, wasn’t aware of the new barriers blocking all access. Driving anywhere near Waverley remains a huge problem, and a paradise for those who reckon road rage is a privilege of car ownership, just as some football fans believe player abuse is included in the ticket price.

June

At long, long last they are rolling, years overdue, millions over budget and miles shorter but the Edinburgh tram is finally in service. Thousands give it a go and in week one there is an assault allegation against an official, the few people who actually live near the line complain the platform announcements are too noisy, there are moans that they are too hot inside and a girl is thankfully unharmed after bouncing off one on Princes Street.

City planners agree to a new local development plan, with building on the A8-M8 corridor now pretty much inevitable. An initial report will be produced by February and the final result expected in September.

Meanwhile the cash-strapped council agrees to spend £300,000 on a feasibility study for a cycleway between Leith and the Union Canal. Even though I have cycled this way many times, the council has yet to accept my offer to carry out the study at a saving for the tax-payer of some £200,000.

July

The public consultation into the Craighouse housing scheme is completed, with the publication of a community plan which poses more 
questions than it answers. The Cameron Toll shopping centre is put on the market for £44m, compared with the purchase price of £80m six years ago. Property isn’t the licence to print money some people think it is and neither city centre nor out of town, Cameron Toll is being squeezed and badly needs a rethink. Glasgow takes deserved plaudits for a splendid Commonwealth Games on which the sun shone until the very last day.

August

International Festival director Jonathan Mills bows out with what is regarded as one of the best programmes of his eight-year tenure, themed around conflict and the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

The Fringe too enjoys a great August, with over 3000 performances in 299 venues. The pulling power of the big comedy shows and free performances funded by big drinks companies continues to trouble Fringe veterans, but the inevitable feeling is there is no going back.

September

As if to clear the decks for the big one, the Craighouse scheme gets the go-ahead, much to the dismay of local opponents who mounted a massive campaign despite winning major concessions and the lack of a viable alternative for the decaying listed buildings. The vast majority of the woodland and open space will be preserved for community use and the listed buildings saved.

The referendum. It might not seem like it now, but Scotland voted No and Edinburgh decisively so. If there is any truth that a re-run now would produce a different result I very much doubt the 61-39 majority for No in this city would be overturned.

As even Nicola Sturgeon has said subsequently, Yes failed to win the economic argument and with the collapse in oil prices, the myth that Scotland can rely on a steady and substantial income from the North Sea has been exploded. Edinburgh voted with its purse and nothing which has happened subsequently has changed that.

The day itself was like no other I’ve experienced. I spent it door-knocking for No Thanks and then made my way to the count, a strangely muted affair in the cavernous halls of the Royal Highland Showground where the result was beyond question from the very first declaration, when SNP-dominated Clackmannanshire came out for No.

The announcements at Ingliston were chaotic, with the broadcasters relaying results a good half hour before the chief returning officer Mary Pitcaithly. And when she was finally able to declare a No victory, despite the delay of the final result from Highland, it was the lowest-key announcement for something so historic.

October

The desire of empowering the city regions is one by-product of the referendum. If there are to be more powers for the Scottish Parliament then there should also be more powers for the cities to compete. Civic leaders are more conscious than ever that devolution shouldn’t be something that stops at Holyrood. It’s clear the city regions in England such as Manchester and Leeds are being freed up to compete with their European counterparts. Edinburgh gets ready to launch a bid for city status by entering negotiations with neighbouring councils to negotiate a City Deal to secure £1bn of infrastructure investment.

Consultation is launched into another controversial housing project, at the Baileyfield site in Portobello, with stiff opposition from local traders worried about the impact of the Aldi store set to come with it.

The Evening News breaks the story which will become known as the Annandale Three, the grievance launched by three directors of Lothian Buses against the chief executive Ian Craig for what they claim is an abrasive management style. It becomes an extraordinary saga which runs and runs and runs.

November

Veteran politician and licensing chief Eric Milligan is sucked into an extraordinary public spat in which senior police attack his attitude towards new alcohol applications. More pubs and off licences mean more trouble and therefore less police to deal with other things like domestic violence, they say. Unproved, says Eric, and unfortunately for the police their own impressive crime statistics seem to undermine their case.

Edinburgh College principal Mandy Exley sets an example for Rangers boss Ally McCoist and resigns her £140,000-a-year post to go on gardening leave while a stand-in is recruited to do her job. Someone isn’t telling the whole story.

Having agreed to a £300,000 study into a Leith cycleway, £400,000 doesn’t seem that much for new tram feasibility work to get the line to Ocean Terminal, but that’s what councillors agree. Cue expected outcry.

December

Planning disappears as a specific ministerial responsibility in the Sturgeon administration. The old local government and planning minister Derek Mackay, who rejected an attempt to overturn the Craighouse decision, is replaced by Edinburgh MSP Marco Biagi who becomes the new local government and community empowerment minister instead. Curious.

Trussell Trust statistics show a massive surge in the number of Edinburgh people using their food banks, from just 604 people in 2012 to 10,704 this year. Wage squeezes and benefit changes alone can’t explain a 1700 per cent jump.

Plans to turn the Old Royal High School into the most luxurious and expensive hotel in Edinburgh have been broadly welcomed, as has the housing part of the Baileyfield plan which finally got the go-ahead. Councillors were less enthusiastic about the Aldi element but it got the nod anyway. As long as Four Seasons Hotels don’t want a Lidl on Regent Road they should be ok.

Over at Annandale Street, there are more woes for Ian Craig as leak after leak puts details of the grievance case against him into the public domain. Allegations of using family members for work and an inappropriate relationship with a junior member of staff don’t look good and the problems at Lothian Buses aren’t going away, But tram use is bang on target, bus passenger numbers are up, and Edinburgh folk love the service.