Liz McAreavey, acting chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, said the city should be looking at “year-round opportunities” to enhance its cultural offering. In a wide-ranging interview with the Evening News, she also:
•Called for clarity over the UK’s exit from the EU, insisting businesses needed a full Brexit timetable in the face of damaging uncertainty;
•Threw her weight behind plans to extend the tram system;
•Said the long-awaited £2 billion City Deal would be “transformational” for Edinburgh;
•Praised the £850 million St James Quarter, arguing that the Capital lacks a “really strong retail offering”.
Her comments came as Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 230th anniversary. The body – which promotes the interests of the business community – received its Royal Charter in July 1786, and has since played a pivotal role in the Capital’s history.
Ms McAreavey, who came into the role three months ago, insisted it was “really important” that Edinburgh continued to invest in its festivals.
She said: “We’ve got 12 really successful festivals – the challenge now is to make sure that we extend the seasons so that we’re looking at year-round opportunities, attracting people into the city.
“We could potentially have a winter Tattoo. When you’ve got such a successful Tattoo that sells out – and they’re now taking it to China and Australia – why not look at other festivals?”
She said the uncertainty around Brexit was the biggest challenge to business in the coming years and the Scottish chambers had already held a number of round-table discussions at government level.
“We all accept we’re leaving,” she added. “That was the vote of the people. Going forward it’s really important that we now make sure we understand the opportunities, and that we make sure our members understand the opportunities as well – and that we have a positive outlook on the situation. But it’s just the current uncertainty – when do they trigger Article 50?
“We need to understand what those timeframes are, and I think that is the uncertainty facing businesses at the moment. The markets went crazy, sterling dropped. Nobody knows what’s happening at the moment, and I think that does cause concern. I think there’s just a lot of political uncertainty right now – and businesses just want to get on.
“We need to understand: what is it we’re asking for? Once we trigger Article 50 it’s a very complex web of legislation to unravel, and that’s going to take a long time.
“Whilst we now have the Leave result, I think it could potentially take years before we develop a plan to understand what exactly we’re trying to achieve. We will want access to the single market, for sure. That’s a given.
“There’s so much we just don’t know at the moment, and I think that is the destabilising thing. We’re kind of moving in the dark.”
But Ms McAreavey, who set up her first business while still a student at Napier University, insisted Edinburgh could weather the political storm.
One source of much-needed investment could be the hotly anticipated City Region Deal, expected to pump up to £2bn of public money into the regional economy, with the potential to attract a further £5bn of private sector cash.
While some fear the scheme has been thrown into doubt by Brexit, Ms McAreavey insists plans are ploughing ahead behind the scenes. And she said Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce has been engaging with businesses over the issue.
“There are five chambers of commerce in the city region,” she said. “One of the first jobs I did was pick up the phone to all the chief execs of the other chambers and invite them to a forum to discuss the opportunity of creating a region chamber alliance. Collectively, I think we’ve got more than 2000 members, and it just means we can spread the information about the City Deal and the city region, and what’s happening to a much wider business community.
“And also, I’m going to draft a concordat so that all the chief execs can sign it, supporting the City Deal. So that gives a good bit of weight, when you think that we represent 2000 businesses – all saying this is good for Edinburgh, or good for the region.
“This is going to be the largest City Deal if it comes off. Obviously, at the moment there are a few concerns, but we’re pretty confident it’s a strong proposition. Seventy per cent of people who come to Scotland come through Edinburgh, so we are the natural gateway for the rest of Scotland.
“If we get Edinburgh right, then the rest of Scotland is going to benefit from it. It’s really understanding the building blocks of the city.
“If you look at tourism – £1.4bn revenue comes into Edinburgh through tourism. 30,000 jobs, £400m in wages. So it’s a key building block of the city and culture is a part of that.
“It’s also about powers. It’s not just about the money. It’s how you manage your estate, how you borrow money, how you invest in the city, how you lever local tax potentially, how you hold on to local revenue to make sure you can invest that wisely in the city.
“I think [the City Deal] has to be transformational, and it will be transformational – that’s the whole purpose of it.”
Looking ahead, Ms McAreavey praised the upcoming St James Quarter, arguing that it represents a much-needed revamp of the east end.
“I think when you look at cities as destinations, people come for a variety of reasons,” she said. “We certainly tick the box on tourists coming to the city for culture, for our world heritage, for our festivals, for our gateway to Scotland.
“But I’m not entirely sure we’ve got a really strong retail offering. That’s the piece of the jigsaw puzzle that’s missing at the moment.”
Elsewhere, Edinburgh’s booming growth could throw up more controversial choices. In a city still scarred by the bungling events of a few years ago, that can mean only one thing: trams.
Ms McAreavey reckons the system should be extended to the north and south as part of a fully integrated transport offering, though she admitted a full network could be a long way off.
“I think, in my view, for the economic success of the city we need a tram network,” she said. “I think what we’ve got now works, but I think for it to really make the impact it needs, we need to build a network.”
And the businesswoman insisted Transport for Edinburgh, the body that manages the city’s public transport operations, should eventually gain control over cycle lanes, taxis and roads.
But whatever the changes in the coming years, Ms McAreavey’s outlook is brimming with optimism. As she puts it: “There’s an awful lot to sing about in our city.”