James McKenzie: Independence will boost Edinburgh

Edinburgh can flourish in an independent Scotland, according to James McKenzie. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Edinburgh can flourish in an independent Scotland, according to James McKenzie. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Would independence benefit Edinburgh? Acres of ink has been spilt covering the claims of Yes and No about the consequences of independence for Scotland as a whole, but much less attention has been paid to what the decision means for Edinburgh.

Not a moment too soon, former Evening News editor John McLellan gave his views on this issue yesterday, and it’s fair to say he thinks the glass of independence would be at best half empty for the Capital. I take a rather more optimistic view.

First, though, there’s a lot that wouldn’t necessarily change. The City of Edinburgh Council wouldn’t automatically get any more powers, say, to adopt a more progressive form of local taxation: that’s already decided by Holyrood. However, one of the inspiring features of the referendum campaign has been rejection of “politics as usual”; it’s difficult to see the transformation of local government being put off much longer.

Similarly, planning policy is devolved to Holyrood. This means vital reforms like a third party right of appeal, a measure designed to put developers and community groups like Friends of Craighouse on an equal footing, could be delivered now. We shouldn’t have to wait for independence to make that change.

Some warn that the property market itself would take a dent from independence. Others, especially those who can’t afford to get on to the property ladder, think gentle deflation of the house price bubble would be good for both housing and the economy. Overall, though, my crystal ball suggests both are likely to be proved wrong. This will remain one of the best cities in the world to live in, especially if you’re better off. For good or ill, the property market will likely be pretty unchanged.

Next, there are the claims of risks of a Yes vote. The last week has seen media reporting of a sequence of big businesses making ominous noises about the impact of a Yes vote. Unpopular as banks have become, and economically destablising as they have been, there would be a serious impact on the Edinburgh economy if they moved their actual operations to England. Close inspection of their statements shows that they essentially mean technically registering in England for banking regulation purposes while employing the same number of people here, doing the same things and contributing to our tax base.

Much of this will depend not on the independence vote but on the election to Holyrood in 2016 that would follow a Yes vote. A responsible independent Scottish government should definitely prioritise a reinvigorated and more responsible banking sector, and support for old-and-new ideas like credit unions, regional banks, and a return to more prudent building society values.

John McLellan is right to say that independence might require more MSPs. There’s already barely enough to cover the committees we already have, and we’ll need ones to cover foreign affairs, defence, macro-economic policy and so on. Incidentally, it’s definitely not a politicians’ job creation scheme: we’d probably just add the same number as the MPs we’d be getting rid of, while, of course, also getting rid of unelected lords, hereditary or otherwise.

The Holyrood building would need to be adapted, though. This need not be bad news. The Chamber is currently very spaced out with 129 MSPs in it. No need to jam them in like the Commons, but there’s room enough for a better atmosphere. Beyond that, a nearby building would just need to serve as additional office space. Perhaps it could offer basic overnight accommodation for MSPs from outside the Lothians, too, to cut down on the expenses bill.

I also agree with John McLellan that independence, ideally sooner rather than later, means we’ll need our own central bank. We’ll also need a host of new government departments doing the same work currently done on our behalf largely outside Scotland, except for examples like DfID in East Kilbride. It wouldn’t be right for all those institutions to be set up in Edinburgh – we don’t want to be a new London, disproportionately spending the rest of the country’s money – but some will definitely be based in the nation’s capital, alongside more embassies for our friends around the world.

And Edinburgh will again be a proper capital for a modern European nation. The consequences of that are hard to predict, but our increased prominence as the capital of an independent nation should be good for tourism, trade, and investment. With a well-planned promotion campaign for Scotland as an old nation reborn (what Tony Blair might have called “traditional values in a modern setting”), Edinburgh in particular could well see a serious influx of visitors, both for business and for pleasure.

Another impact of having a complete administration for an independent Scotland based here in Edinburgh is that it would reduce, although not eliminate, the brain drain to London. Right now bright young people from Edinburgh who take an interest in international affairs overwhelmingly move south for work. Some will continue to do so. But more will surely find roles with a more internationalised Scotland, headquartered right here.

• James Mackenzie is a businessman and former head of communications for the Green MSPs

Renewables and manufacturing

The most interesting question is this: what might an independent Scottish Government do differently to boost Edinburgh?

Of course this depends on who wins the 2016 election and elections after that, but the interests and affairs of the people of Edinburgh must surely be of more importance to Scottish MSPs based here than they are to Westminster right now. So I’ve got a short wish list of things which that first independent administration could do for Scotland and for Edinburgh, in addition to more power for local areas and support for new finance models.

First, do something about inequality. Edinburgh is a divided city, with serious wealth and serious poverty. A more equal Scotland and Edinburgh would be happier, fairer, and more at peace with itself. The current tax and benefits system is unfit for purpose, and could almost have been designed to discourage work.

Second, as a city Edinburgh needs to rediscover some of its manufacturing appetite, to balance out the dominant finance sector. We have a good basis for renewables businesses in Edinburgh, but we’ve already seen high quality jobs like the new wind turbine manufacturers Gamesa in Leith being put in doubt by the UK government’s weakening commitment to the industry. Scotland has the potential to power itself from renewables more than five times over: let’s commit to doing that, to doing the work here, and to securing the benefits for Edinburgh and Scotland.

Third, the first independent Scottish administration must (and surely will) maintain the best of relationships with the rest of the UK. If we vote Yes, we won’t have rejected them, especially the thousands of Edinburgh residents like me, people who were born in England but desperately want to see an independent Scotland. We’re rejecting the broken Westminster model, sure, but we want to see friendly and constructive relationships persist.

There will be exciting times ahead if we vote Yes. There’ll be challenges for us to overcome, but some pretty tantalising opportunities too, both for Scotland and for what I believe would become the world’s best capital city.