Old Town in bid to deliver ‘five-star’ city status

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It is Scotland’s most historic thoroughfare, thronged with visitors flocking to attractions like Edinburgh Castle, Palace of Holyroodhouse and St Giles’ Cathedral.

But now the Royal Mile could become home to its first “land train” to take tourists around its key sites and help spread the benefits of the industry.

The Royal Mile. Picture: Getty

The Royal Mile. Picture: Getty

A move to replicate ventures in historic towns and cities overseas is being considered as part of a bid to turn the Old Town into a “world-class five-star destination”.

A key aim is spreading the economic benefits generated by the major attractions “more evenly” across the Old Town, which attracts more than four million visitors a year.

Streets would be regularly closed off for markets, processions, pageants and heritage-related events, new works of public art would be commissioned, and new walking guides would be created under a vision aimed at protecting the Old Town’s World Heritage Site status.

Its backers want a proposed new dedicated marketing campaign for the Old Town to “create a strong and aspirational identity, sense of place and global appeal.”

However a clampdown on begging, rough sleeping and antisocial behaviour is proposed in the blueprint, which businesses are currently being consulted on.

A new team of “street ambassadors” could be brought in to help tackle long-standing problems, while action is also proposed to tackle “distressed” locations which have been blighted for years.

New lighting is proposed to help transform the fortunes of “no-go” closes and courtyards after dark, while measures to curb traffic levels on streets like the Cowgate and Victoria Street are expected to be drawn up.

Developing long-standing gap sites is another key aim of the project, which has been developed by a steering group made of local businesses, heritage bodies and city council representatives.

The plans have been developed following research which found that safety and security concerns were cited by 42 per cent of businesses as the Old Town’s biggest problem. Two thirds demanded cleaner streets, while better promotion of the area was sought by nearly half of them.

A vote will be held next summer on a proposed Business Improvement District, which would see around £3 million raised over the next five years for special initiatives via a new rates levy, similar to a scheme which already exists in the New Town. It is hoped a further £1m a year could be raised from funding partners for specific projects, including marketing campaigns, events and infrastructure improvements.

Project manager Norrie Stewart said: “The great thing about the Old Town is that people still live there. That means it is a thriving environment.

“Although the BID will be funded entirely by local businesses, the benefits that some of the projects will bring will be for everyone.

“There is a feeling that there are no-go areas away from the bright lights of the Royal Mile and that things can be done to make these places as interesting and inviting as possible, particularly if there was some form of animation or activity going on. It’s almost like mini-gentrification of an area.”

James McGregor, owner of the Royal McGregor bar and restaurant on the Royal Mile, who is chairing the BID steering group, said: “After 20 years trading in the Old Town it is clear to me that business-led improvements for visitors, residents and employees are necessary. A Business Improvement District would provide the collective responsibility to continue to develop our beautiful area for everyone’s benefit.

“An organised business community can work more effectively to create positive change and increase support for businesses in the area. Marketing campaigns would build a strong identity showcasing improvements to the ‘look and feel’ of the Old Town.

“Our board would work closely with local charities, Police Scotland and the council to raise concerns, monitor business regulations, and obtain funding and support for business development projects in our part of the city.

“As a business owner on the Royal Mile, I’ve been exhilarated and frustrated by the many issues and opportunities arising over the years. It’s time to take positive collective action to protect and grow our businesses, action that will also benefit jobs, visitors and local residents.”

Manuela Calchini, regional partnerships director at national tourism agency VisitScotland, said: “The Old Town area is one of the key areas for tourism activity. Coming together as a BID, the area would be able to speak with a coherent and strong voice and would be heard more clearly by other stakeholders.”

The bid area includes the entire Royal Mile, as well as Cockburn Street, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, George IV Bridge, Victoria Street, Candlemaker Row, Jeffrey Street, Niddry Street and the Bridges.

Companies, attractions, businesses and organisations represented on the steering group include Camera Obscura, the Scottish Poetry Library, Sneaky Pete’s live music venue, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, the Cockburn Cafe, Edinburgh World Heritage and the Monkey Barrel Comedy Club.

Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “We support the idea of the BID as a way of improving the environment of the Old Town for residents and businesses alike. It will provide a clear set of priorities to focus activities and the attention of politicians, residents and businesses around.”

John Donnelly, chief executive of Marketing Edinburgh, said: “As the official body which promotes Edinburgh to the world, we would welcome the opportunity to collaborate with a BID to attract visitors to the Old Town.

“The Old Town and its architecture and history are among the top reasons why visitors come to the city, and highlighting the unique aspects of Edinburgh’s ancient streets and distinct neighbourhoods could really boost the specialist independent businesses there.”

Lezley Cameron, economy vice-convener on the city council, said: “We are working with the steering group to facilitate the bid and we hope that all businesses within the area will share their views on this opportunity.”

Scottish Conservatives leader Ruth Davidson, MSP for Edinburgh Central and one of the backers of the initiative, said: “It is so important that those attractions and businesses that operate in this World Heritage Site have a direct say in the improvements and services that are offered.”

Key proposals for Old Town

1: Protect World Heritage Status by creating a world-class five-star destination.

2: Ensure all businesses have their views represented by a recognised organisation run by businesses.

3: Address the need for better street cleanliness and better waste handling.

4: Mitigate issues around homelessness, begging and antisocial behavour.

5: Improve signage and lighting to encourage walking and wayfinding.

6: Help spread the economic benefits generated by major attractions more evenly across the area.

7: Encourage a “big picture” and long-term vision that benefits all stakeholders and enables dialogues between different sectors and sizes of businesses.

8: Collaborate with major tourism bodies to better showcase the Old Town’s unique appeal.