John McLellan: We must unlock Leith’s potential

What's good for Leith Walk.... Pic: Phil Wilkinson
What's good for Leith Walk.... Pic: Phil Wilkinson
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If it’s good news for Scotland, it must be good news for Edinburgh. New figures out this week show the Scottish economy is on track to grow by more than two per cent next year, the fastest rate since 2007.

On the back of a 1.4 per cent boost this year, the respected Centre for Economics and Business Research reckons consumer confidence is behind it all, and that means you and I spending more money.

John McLellan Pic Neil Hanna

John McLellan Pic Neil Hanna

And if we’re all going to be spending more money then that’s very good news for the businesses which ultimately pay all our wages. Even the more conservative Fraser of Allander prediction last week puts next year’s growth at 1.8 per cent.

Experience shows that when Scotland gets a lift, Edinburgh benefits more than most, especially when business services are expected to be in the vanguard of the continued recovery.

As businesses thrive, demand for legal, accountancy and marketing services will grow; areas in which Edinburgh has long-established expertise.

The number of people in work is expected to be 2.4 per cent higher across Scotland by the end of this year and even though public sector employment will still be under pressure by 2018, national unemployment could be down to 6.1 per cent. If that’s true then Edinburgh could again face a labour shortage as it did in the years running up to 2007; unemployment in much of Edinburgh is already well below 6.1 per cent, currently standing at six per cent in Central, 5.5 per cent in Eastern and five per cent in Pentlands.

There are, of course, still areas with problems and even with more job opportunities those out of work don’t necessarily have the skills needed to fill the vacancies. That’s why training programmes like that run by the Cyrenians at Fort Kinnaird are so important.

Indeed, South Edinburgh stands out as the main unemployment black spot, at 8.5 per cent, with North Edinburgh and Leith close behind at 8.1 per cent.

It is no surprise then that people representing Leith and Craigmillar had such differing views about the rejected Debenhams department store plan for Fort Kinnaird. But marry up these employment figures with another set of statistics and a challenging pattern emerges.

According to the 2011 Census, the fastest growing district in Edinburgh for population is Leith, with an estimated 26,000 people living within 800 metres of Leith Walk. The area between Leith Walk and Easter Road is by far the most densely populated area of the city. In fact, it’s the most densely populated area of Scotland, the closest being Partick in Glasgow at 22,000 people in an 800-metre radius. Both have some way to go to catch London’s Kensington and Chelsea with 45,000 packed into just under 10sq km.

Craigmillar, too, after years of decline, is now seeing a significant rise in population, so for both Leith and Craigmillar there is an urgency to ensure that employment opportunities not only keep pace with the influx of people but outstrip it.

And that’s why I still maintain that the decision to reject the Debenhams bid – effectively blocking Peter while not offering to pay anything to Paul – was a mistake.

Across the city, the population patterns are almost back to where they were in 1971, when there was a real danger Edinburgh would become a doughnut city like so many others.

The city centre population – those living within one kilometre – went from 20,200 in 1971 to a low of 12,300 in 1981 but climbed back to 19,700 by 2011. It seems hard to believe now that in the 1970s the New Town was unfashionable and properties difficult to sell. Look at the pictures of old St James Square and it’s clear they would now be highly desirable.

Wider out, by 2011 some 314,400 people were living within four kilometres of the city centre, compared with the slump to 260,000 by 1981 from 325,100 ten years earlier.

By any measure it’s a remarkable transformation, and when you look at what happened to St James Square – and on the West Port and Bristo Square, for that matter – we should still breathe a sigh of relief that the plan to build a two-tier roadway the length of Princes Street came to nothing.

Now, with the Registers of Scotland population prediction of 611,000 living here by 2035, those extra 110,000 people are going to have to live and work somewhere. But compared with the alternative it’s a good problem to have.

Down in Leith, with plans for more housing on the waterfront still very much part of the city council’s blueprint, managing an even more concentrated population will not be easy.

Demand for affordable housing remains high and the likes of the Port of Leith Housing Association can’t keep pace with demand.

In the meantime, with the tram line to the coast now on ice, the council is pressing ahead with improvements to Leith Walk with some £9 million of council and Scottish Government cash being invested to improve the thoroughfare. With completion due sometime next year, the growing port population should find it easier to get around by bike and more pleasant to walk about. That should be good news for the bars and restaurants, but it will only scratch at the surface.

No-one should be under any illusion that the Leith tram project is dead and buried, so what will happen to the £9m of improvements if the project is revived? I can’t believe that after all it has been through, the council is about to burn that amount of cash on what could be a temporary project, but I’m told the changes are being made with the tram line very much in mind.

That Leith Walk has massive potential has always seemed to me to be beyond doubt and it remains the key to the continued regeneration of the entire old burgh.

Edinburgh is still small enough for boosts in one area to bring benefits for all and what is good for Leith is good for Edinburgh. And like Scotland, what’s good for the whole of Edinburgh should be good for Leith, too.