Call to ban buses from Edinburgh’s Old Town to protect heritage

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People living in the historic heart of Edinburgh want a clampdown ordered on open-top buses, tourist coaches and trucks, amid claims its Old Town has become an “unsustainable mess”.

Parts of the city centre are said to be regularly brought to a halt and suffer damage to roads and pavements due to a lack of regulation over areas on and around the Royal Mile.

Open-top buses and tourist coaches could be banned from Edinburgh's Old Town

Open-top buses and tourist coaches could be banned from Edinburgh's Old Town

A “large vehicle ban” on the Canongate, Lawnmarket, Victoria Street, Cockburn Street, St Mary’s Street, ­Candlemaker Row, West Port, East Market Street, ­Jeffrey Street and the Cowgate has been proposed by community leaders.

Soaring tourism numbers, traffic chaos, “third world” roads and pavement conditions, an invasion of illegal advertising boards and “degrading” standards of waste collection have also been cited in a damning dossier submitted to the city council.

It has branded the main taxi rank serving Waverley Station “a shocking embarrassment to the city”, has accused the council of allowing “fly-tipping” by contractors on historic streets, and wants delivery companies to be forced to use small vans or electric vehicles to get access to the Old Town in future.

The Old Town Community Council also wants much stricter regulation, including a new permit system for groups of more than 10, aimed at operators of ghost tours, pub crawls and “silent disco” events to curb disruption and ensure roads and pavements are kept clear for local residents.

Fears have been raised about overcrowding in the Old Town

Fears have been raised about overcrowding in the Old Town

The dossier states: “We are perpetually told that it is necessary to sacrifice everything, including our architectural integrity, to attract ever more tourists to our city and that this is necessary because they bring vast amounts of money into the city. Meanwhile we are told the city cannot afford to undertake basic maintenance let alone upgrade anything.”

Community council spokesman Bill Cowan said: “All these issues have got a lot worse in the last five years, due to a complete collapse of any kind of enforcement of existing regulations, as well as the number of new hotels.

“We’re the only World Heritage Site that allows any vehicle to drive right through the middle of it.”

The “Our Streets” dossier has been revealed just days after it emerged that motorists were facing a raft of new restrictions on where they can drive in the city centre in future under moves by the council to hand over more space to pedestrians and cyclists.

Council leader Adam McVey said: “Our World Heritage Site is of crucial importance to the future vision and development of the city. That is why we’ve gone to great lengths to develop a management plan to ensure that the city centre balances the needs of everyone.

“This report raises important questions around traffic flow and street furniture amongst other things, and we’re already spending a lot of time with public transport operators like Lothian Buses to look at how their routes across the city centre work.

“It is very encouraging that we’re receiving such detailed feedback from the community. We’re committed to engaging with partners, businesses, residents and everyone else with an interest in the city centre to ensure it benefits those who live and work here, those who need to travel in the city, and those who want to visit.”

Last week the council agreed a five-year blueprint with the Scottish Government’s heritage agency and the Edinburgh World Heritage trust, the main watchdog for the Old and New towns – to act on a host of long-running concerns about the city centre.

Edinburgh World Heritage director Adam Wilkinson said: “These observations chime with what we learned during the World Heritage Site management plan consultation and vividly illustrate both the nature of the problems and the deep desire in the community to address these head-on. The World Heritage Site is part of a living, breathing, working city that needs to be managed correctly to balance the needs of residents, visitors and business.

“There’s a real need for a co-ordinated approach to the challenges across the city centre. Looking after a World Heritage Site at the heart of a capital city is a difficult business and responsibility falls across a range of partners, council policies and services.

“The management plan we launched last week provides guidance on dealing with many of the issues raised here. By ensuring guidelines and regulations we already have in place are followed, many of these concerns will be addressed.”

Terry Levinthal, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “It’s not so much a case of mismanagement of these issues, but under-management. All of these require effective governance and apparatus. If the city is not investing in those kind of things and making them fit for purpose, it’s going to struggle.”

Alasdair Northrop, spokesman for the Scottish Tourist Guides Association, said: “When our members are guiding coaches we try and make sure they use the most appropriate roads. It is important operators make coach drivers aware of their responsibilities.

“It is important that citizens benefits from tourism and when things go wrong we need to do something about it. We need to see more communication with the council to tackle the issues being raised.”

Garry Clark, development manager for the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “Small businesses in the centre of Edinburgh recognise that there is a need to address the undoubted problems that large vehicles can have in the heart of our historic city, which was not designed with this kind of traffic in mind.

“Both the contribution of the Old Town Community Council and the council’s traffic management plans are important in shaping future transport policies in the city centre.

“But this must be done in close collaboration with local businesses in order to ensure that well-intentioned actions do not prejudice the ability of local small businesses to go about their daily work.

“That is why they must be fully engaged in the debate over our city’s transport future to help find solutions that recognise the fact they are part of the fabric of our cityscape and community. If they’re involved from the outset, better outcomes will ultimately be delivered for our city.”

Norrie Stewart, project manager of the proposed Edinburgh Old Town Business Improvement District, said: “These are good, well-made points from the community council. Many business will wholeheartedly endorse the issues and solutions.”

Demands to overhaul Old Town’s ‘third world’ state

Edinburgh’s Old Town is home to some of the city’s best-known attractions and landmarks. More than two million visitors visited the castle alone last year, fuelling record tourist numbers flocking to the Royal Mile and its surrounding thoroughfares.

But, as far as the people who actually live in the area are concerned, it has been allowed to slip into unacceptable decline in recent years.

The 13-page “Our Streets” dossier sent to senior councillors and officials has laid bare long-standing concerns about a lack of control over tourism operators, delivery companies and local businesses.

The Old Town Community Council, which has compiled the report, has insisted that the dozens of photographs it has featured paint a picture of “everyday life,” rather than worst case scenarios or unusual events.

It states: “Some of those solutions may seem radical to the city council, but they were mostly standard long ago in other World Heritage Cities.”

The dossier says tour buses regularly cause “logjams” on historic thoroughfares like Victoria Street and the West Bow.

It adds: “There are far too many of them, they are too large and are rarely more than half-full. Edinburgh is a walking city, especially the Old Town. These oversized buses congest our narrow streets and represent a serious degradation of the livability of our city and as a visitor destination for the very people that they are supposed to serve. They should be banned from the Old Town.”

The community group says tourist coaches are an even more serious problem and should only be allowed in the Old Town to pick up and drop-off at hotels or special events if permits have been issued by the city council in advance.

The dossier states: “They are very large, they are not designed for use in cities, they are driven by temporary or foreign drivers with little or no regard to our regulations, who attempt to use narrow and unsuitable streets, and who park selfishly and illegally, usually with their engines running, for long periods.”

The community council wants all companies making deliveries in the Old Town to be forced to use vehicles of 7.5 tonnes or less, with the exception of companies delivering alcohol, who would be allowed to seek special permission to use a 16 tonne vehicle.

The report states: “The use of such large vehicles for small deliveries is purely and simply for the convenience of the operators. They must be forced to use small, preferably electric, vehicles for deliveries, if necessary by re-distribution from peripheral depots.”

Referring to the amount of street clutter in the Old Town, the report states: “If anyone else left crap like this laying about they would be charged for fly tipping. If any of these things were on business premises they would constitute a prosecutable health and safety breach.

“The undeniable extremely poor state of the streets is a shame on the fine city that Edinburgh rightly likes to consider itself. Some streets are easily worse than places in the third world.”