Leith Walk businesses reveal the strain of tram extension and Covid-19 restrictions

While opinion is divided on Edinburgh City Council’s support, the Leith traders agree the construction works have been perilous for businesses.

By Katharine Hay
Tuesday, 15th September 2020, 6:07 pm
Updated Thursday, 17th September 2020, 3:09 pm
Lucy Watters from Weigh to Go and David Griffin from Elvis Shakespeare, on Leith Walk

Business across the Capital have noticed a major drop in customers under new social distancing measures, but those in Leith Walk have been hit with a double whammy – Edinburgh’s tram works.

Edinburgh Evening News spoke to traders affected by the city council’s ongoing Trams to Newhaven project to hear more about how they are coping with restricted customer access under the already strict Covid-19 measures.

While opinion is divided on Edinburgh City Council’s support, the Leith traders agree the construction works have made the struggle more severe.

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Speaking about the tram project David Griffin, who runs Elvis Shakespeare, said: “At worst it’s council corruption, at best it is inefficiency.

“I am disgusted they have started these works again, in this time when businesses have been badly hit already.

"No one is coming down here. We would normally have double, treble the customers to what we are getting now.

"I don’t mind asking people to wear masks, it's more the disorganisation and dishonesty that comes with the tram works – the fact that [Edinburgh Tram Inquiry]* hasn’t published the report about the first phase messing up yet is a sign in itself.”

A £10,000 grant was given to businesses during lockdown which David said helped his vinyl shop stay on its feet, but he fears the tram works will be the end of many traders.

"It was great receiving a grant off the back of this Covid crisis because it helped us stay on our feet, and the furlough scheme,” David added.

"But I don’t feel supported through this tram chaos whatsoever. I have tried to contact local councillors which has come to nothing, unsurprisingly. I don’t feel anyone involved with the project are really taking responsibility for the impact it is having on us businesses.”

Lucy Watters, who owns Weigh to Go, kept her essential business open in lockdown but said the construction site has been perilous for traders.

"The council could have at least waited for businesses to build themselves up again after months of lockdown,” she said.

“While I still had customers in lockdown, I understand the frustration for businesses here. My dad has been running Vinyl Villains and he has had to dig into his savings to keep the place going.”

Despite the council’s efforts to bring customers to Leith with its itison campaign – an initiative where customers are offered vouchers worth £10 for the price of £5 – Lucy said the vouchers do not work in some businesses.

"My till won’t accept these itison vouchers so the council hasn’t really taken the time to make sure their plans to support us actually benefit us,” Lucy added.

Cautiously optimistic

Yet, Tracy Griffen from Griffen Fitness said she is feeling “cautiously optimistic."

“It can be noisy, which makes it hard to focus,” she said, shouting over a digger outside her door.

"I am feeling relatively positive but I am one of the luckier ones because my clients walk or cycle to me, and many enjoy fitness sessions outside."

Despite Tracy’s unwonted optimism about the tram project, she likened the current works as the “first stage of a marathon.”

"It will get harder, noticing the lack of people, but I had this business through one set of tram works and a recession and I am not giving it up anytime soon.”

Francesa Contini, from Valvona Crolla in Elm Row said her family-owned business has survived through lockdown mainly by their online and delivery services which they fortunately had set up before the pandemic hit the UK in March.

But she said businesses needs to maintain the pressure on the council to keep customers coming down to Leith, despite the construction works.

"The trams need to be completed at some point, that’s a given, because they will be beneficial to all of us,” she said.

"They will help reconnect Leith with the heart of Edinburgh’s centre.”

She said communication between businesses and the council has been clearer than the first phase of the works and officials are showing that they understand the urgency of the situation.

“They have spent about £2.4m on support projects for us, including the itison scheme which is practical and positive,” Francesa added.

"The council needs to keep momentum because businesses have been affected by multiple factors – the trams, Covid, and the Edinburgh Festival not going ahead.

“They need to keep getting people through our doors to make sure that these businesses are still here in five + years.”

Council response

A council spokeswoman said: “We want to do everything we can to limit the disruption on residents and businesses and to help people continue to enjoy everything Leith has to offer. We’ve made every effort to maintain access to shops by foot, bike and by bus and we’ve put parking areas in place for visits by car, too. Parking is available for one hour and this has been consistent from the start. The bays are being enforced and are useful for promoting turnover of customers and disabled vehicle access.

“We have a detailed business support package in place which is being assisted and supported by the Chamber of Commerce, an Open for Business campaign and our itison voucher scheme. Over 70 Leith Walk bars, restaurants, cafes and shops are also taking part in this voucher scheme, which gives everyone an added incentive to visit the range of independent businesses in the area. All of this support is alongside a Business Continuity Fund which is open and being reviewed in light of Covid-19. We’ve committed over £2.4m towards these measures which local traders have helped to shape.

“We’re making good progress with the project despite Covid and we look forward to the benefits it will bring to the local and wider community when it’s complete.

*Edinburgh Tram Inquiry, an independent inquiry into the first set of tram works in the city commissioned by the Scottish Government, has not been published yet.

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