Edinburgh George Street revamp: Fresh look at parts of scheme amid concerns over rising costs

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Opposition parties have forced a fresh look at parts of the major revamp of Edinburgh’s George Street after raising concerns about rising costs.

Latest projections for the scheme - which will see general traffic banned as the iconic city-centre street becomes a cycle and pedestrian zone - show the bill rising by £7 million to £39.45 million, 30 per cent more than the original £28m estimate.

The George Street revamp will exclude general traffic and create a pedestrian and cycle zoneThe George Street revamp will exclude general traffic and create a pedestrian and cycle zone
The George Street revamp will exclude general traffic and create a pedestrian and cycle zone | City council

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The scheme includes widening pavements, planting trees and turning the carriageway into a "cycle street" with vehicles treated as "guests". General traffic will be excluded between 10am and 7pm, Monday to Saturday, and between 12.30pm and 7pm on Sundays. But taxis will be allowed in for disabled people during these hours and a limited number of coaches will be able to service the hotels.

At the council’s transport and environment committee on Thursday, SNP transport spokesman Danny Aston praised the George Street project as “excellent, gold-standard stuff”. And he said: “If money were no object, I wouldn’t be speaking now, but money is an issue.”

He said the proposals for George Street were “more place-making and economic development than active travel” yet funding for it was coming from active travel budgets. “I do also have some concerns that the active travel benefits the project would bring are being watered down with hotels getting coach access and pressing quite hard for more coach access.

“I just think we need to pause and take stock, especially when cheaper projects which I think would deliver a better bang for our buck are potentially being delayed. I support this project but not at any cost.”

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He said there were alternative funding models that could be looked into, including a Growth Accelerator Model, which was used for the St James Quarter; private sector funding; and using revenue from the tourist tax.

Lib Dem group leader Kevin Lang also argued it would be right to step back and look at the project as a whole. The latest cost figures had backed up alarm bells which began to ring last year. And he said he expected the eventual cost to be “a lot more” than the current £39m figure.

He said there was no doubt George Street needed to change and there were positives in the project. But he added: “As this scheme is evolving I’m a little bit worried this is becoming a bit of a Frankenstein project and it will actually end up pleasing nobody.”

And he continued: “I do worry that as we go forward this will become a massive sink hole for active travel and other budgets. This is a council for the whole of the city, not just the city centre. We’ve got many other projects that could be funded from the money we’re going to have to plough into this. I’m just not convinced this is a value for money project.”

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The Greens’ Jule Bandel said: “I’m very worried about how this project has become watered down, with regard to cycling in particular. And I don’t know if this still meets the principle that cars are ‘guests’ - if they are, I think they are overstaying their welcome.”

She said she was also concerned about traffic taking advantage of the night time when the bollards were not operating. “Cyclists also cycle at night and I think they should have a safe space at night as well.”

Tory group leader Iain Whyte said the plan to revamp George Street was “one of the longest-running projects we’ve got, without anything actually on the ground and at considerable cost”.

“We have lots of other things to do in this council and we have no money. It’s time we stopped this and had a full review of the scheme. And in doing that I want to make sure that we allow those who need unfettered access to George Street - blue badge holders and others with mobility problems - a way of getting there without some complex and untested booking scheme, and coaches when needed for the hotels.”

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But transport convener Scott Arthur said “Doing nothing in George Street is not really an option. I get that there are lots of other priorities across the city, but George Street is absolutely the core of the city economy - it’s out-performing a lot of similar areas across the country, but that’s something that has to be cherished and not taken for granted.”

After discussion, a compromise was reached, which stops short of a complete pause or a full review but does seek a report from officials on best value, funding sources and where the project sits in relation to other council strategies. It will include a cost-benefit analysis and also look at concerns about the higher than originally envisaged numbers of taxi and private hire vehicles now proposed to be given entry and other changes to the scheme.

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