If at rush hour you’re sitting fuming in your car or swaying halfway up the aisle of a packed bus, you’ll be forgiven for thinking that Edinburgh’s traffic problems can’t get any worse. Think again.
Because the city is on the brink of a population explosion unknown in living memory – and that means more people needing to get about.
According to the National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh is set to grow by nearly a quarter in the next 20 years or so, rising from 482,640 last year to an eye-watering 611,367 in 2035. 2011 showed the greatest increase ever recorded, of about ten per cent.
The key is the fast-growing numbers of people in their 20s already relocating to the city; between 2009 and 2001 there was a net influx of 6834 people aged between 16 and 29 and while many will be students, the chances are significant numbers will put down roots and start families, especially if the economy continues to flourish.
The increased number of 30 to 64-year-olds expected in Edinburgh dwarfs the projections for the rest of Scotland, and as they are the most economically active that’s good news for businesses.
But where are all these people going to live? Three years ago a housing report for south-east Scotland talked about the need for more than 6000 new homes and in particular warned of the growing need to meet the demand for affordable homes in Edinburgh.
This week, as the city council rolls out the next phase of its consultation on the city’s masterplan, the talk is of a need for 3000 new homes in Edinburgh alone. We have, of course, been here before. But that was in the time of plenty before the crash of 2008 when developers were falling over themselves to build here and the planners could be choosy about what was acceptable.
In particular, it meant pushing housebuilders to the waterfront and the swathes of old industrial land at Granton, Newhaven and Leith. A 21st century New Town would be created, all linked up to the rest of the city with the wonderful new tram loop.
Now the latest vision, first revealed earlier this year, is different in at least one significant respect to previous grand designs – the opening up of the airport corridor.
Now unfolding is a thrust to Newbridge, unthinkable when the focus was on the waterfront and when it seemed the City Bypass represented a modern version of impenetrable city walls.
The rigid adherence to green belt designations put paid to the 1999 film studio scheme proposed by Sony, championed by Sir Sean Connery, on land owned by Sir David Murray. That plan was thrown out largely because it was suspected to be a Trojan Horse to allow the Rangers tycoon to build houses on land limited to agriculture.
Ten years later, Sir David unveiled another plan, this time for a brand new Garden District in the same area for 3500 new homes, with a new sports complex at its heart.
The Murray consultant’s report spoke of a need for 13,500 new homes in and around the city by 2024, and with the population projections it might not be wide of the mark. With people living longer and couples separating, demand for greater numbers of smaller units will only increase.
The plans are still very much alive, but as the land is still firmly designated as green belt, Sir David might be frustrated once again.
But holding that line will be more difficult this time round. For one thing, RBS didn’t have its swanky new headquarters at Gogarburn in 1999; permission for that was made easier because being built on the grounds of the old mental hospital meant it was technically a brownfield site.
But setting aside the planning niceties, the fact is a major employer was able to establish a base for thousands of workers on the way to the airport.
Then the creation of the unquestionably industrial tram depot further changed the nature of the area.
But the big change came with the designation of the airport corridor as a site of national economic importance by the Scottish Government and the result of that is the creation of special economic areas. And that is something for which we should be thankful.
The pursuit of the waterfront dream ignored the desire for businesses to go where transport and communication was easiest and for people to live near where they worked. The tram loop from Roseburn to Leith was recognition that people would not be living near new employment opportunities.
Now we have a vision for west Edinburgh which for the first time marries up major housing expansion at Cammo and Turnhouse Road with business expansion opportunities near a railway station, the airport, the motorway system and the tram line. At last. Realistically, planning convener Ian Perry recognises changed circumstances and this week acknowledged the green belt was no longer sacrosanct.
Of course, not everyone is happy and so far there have been more than 2000 objections to the new local development plan, understandably from many people not wishing to see building near their homes. Some will undoubtedly receive reassurance but many will be disappointed. The good people of Cammo in particular are likely to find a brand new estate of up to 700 homes replacing rolling fields.
So with more than 100,000 extra people living in the city, and a conservative estimate of at least 3000 new homes being built, 2000 of them in west Edinburgh, how will they get about?
It’s clear the road network as it stands can’t cope – it can easily take not far short of an hour to get from the Calders roundabout into town in the evening rush hour for a journey that otherwise would take 15 minutes.
The latest transport appraisal reckons there could be a 14.5 per cent increase in traffic on the A8 Glasgow Road alone. That spells chaos at Gogar and the Maybury.
All around the area, traffic snakes back for miles at peak times: back along the M8, up the City Bypass, down the Calders, along the Glasgow Road. There is no escape. So what to do?
New road building might go against the grain but Newbridge, Gogar and Maybury can’t cope as it is, so some form of road improvement is inevitable.
On the bright side, building more houses at the end of the tram line will help make it pay, because for now not enough people live along the line to get anywhere near justifying the cost.
But for now, there doesn’t seem much alternative to continue fuming behind the wheel.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE . .
Knowing what we all know now, these observations from a House of Lords debate will seem very familiar, even though it took place in 1961 and they were arguing about whether or not to build the City Bypass.
Here is Lord Ferrier, the Edinburgh-born soldier and businessman: “Whence is the money to come to pay for this expensive road undertaking, of which the full measure may be more than any figure I have heard mentioned? The first task for Scotland – almost an emergency task – is the improvement of the A8, with its dreadful accident toll. But I wonder whether the finance for the Edinburgh bypass cannot be found at the same time.
“I ask myself, what is it worth to protect the City of Edinburgh from spoliation by traffic? Some of us can be forgiven if we distrust the will of the city authorities to preserve the amenities – indeed, the aesthetic value – of, especially, the New Town.”
And in response, here is the Lancashire-born Labour peer Lord Shepherd: “I think that I saw Edinburgh at its best in 1941, when there was an absence of vehicles and one could walk with comfort through the streets of that wonderful city. Today, Edinburgh, like every other city, finds itself in the same plight – congestion of cars, congestion of
pedestrians and congestion of that worst of all cars, the permanently parked car.”
So, no change here then . . .
• In 2012 there were an estimated 224,322 Edinburgh households, with a total city population of 482,640.
• By 2035, the population is expected to jump to 611,367.
• In 2012, the city had 235,850 dwellings, of which 4700 were empty and 7000 were second homes.
• An annual average of 6766 people moved to Edinburgh between 2009 and 2011.
• Of people reaching 65 in the city, women can expect to live to 85 and men to 82.
• Edinburgh has 31,500 listed buildings, Scotland’s greatest concentration.
• The city has 63 nationally important scheduled monuments and 49 conservation areas.
• Sixty per cent of Edinburgh households have access to a car, according to 2007 statistics.