Alison Craig: Beating heart of city in dire need of CPR

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TWENTY-ONE years ago my long-suffering husband, David Howie Scott, started Howies. It was a recession and, frankly, we knew no better. But it worked. It worked because we cooked great fresh local food, sold it at a keen set-price menu and loved it. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Five years ago we sold it and moved to pastures new. Then six months ago we heard Howies was in receivership and, after months of negotiation, we bought it back in the middle of December. In a recession. Groundhog Day.

When we informed our friends and family they said one of two things. 1: You’re off your heads. 2: You two are completely off your heads.

Whether they were right or not remains to be seen. Of course, no sooner have we taken back control than we are bombarded by negative stories about restaurants struggling to keep their head above water, and in some case closing. It’s gutting. It’s gutting for us all.

If there is one thing a restaurateur loves, it’s another restaurateur, a kindred spirit. Another maverick soul eschewing the option of a normal life to work seven days and nights under pressure in an environment that can break the strongest will.

So if this contraction of local business is allowed to continue, one by one the neighbourhood restaurants we all remember fondly will become nothing more than a story to tell your grand- children.

I’ll bet a penny to pound of sugar you can name a few characterful places you can recall fondly, which have been erased from the business landscape of Edinburgh.

Without support, before too long every small business will be in danger of sliding into oblivion, being dwarfed by the vast multinationals based in a faceless office in a faceless industrial estate somewhere a thousand miles from the heart of our city.

The expression “heart of a city” surely means just that. The living, breathing, beat of energy in a town or city. And forgive me for being so blunt but, if there is one organisation that could and should be helping not hindering, it’s Edinburgh City Council.

It’s a shocking fact that business rates are outrageously high in this city. Far higher than the majority of cities in Europe. Now there would be a case to support high rates if we were enjoying high days and holidays. And if the streets, the very arteries that join us all together, were running smoothly, allowing people to get around. That is but a dim and distant memory. Yes, you know what’s coming now.

The trams. Still ongoing, this has turned the once pleasurable experience of wandering or driving round this city into an adventure of such unpredictability that Bear Grylls might be the only hope to get you from one side of Princes Street to the other.

The sad and sobering result of all this is that local businesses are suffering, and badly. They are closing. They are at the end of their tether. They are trying their damnedest and being slapped down at every turn.

So, as a restaurateur who knows his onions, David has returned to the values that launched Howies all those years ago – great Scottish food and set-price menus, a formula that works for us.

However, you can use every trick in the book but if your entrance is hidden behind scaffolding, your road is dug up for the third time in two years, the parking is suspended, the buses no longer go along your road, and the cost of food keeps going up, you are not just swimming against the tide, you are strapped into a pair of concrete wellies and the tide is coming in. So, come on, Edinburgh City Council, give us a break. Don’t think we haven’t noticed your heads being turned as large American retailers swan into George Steet with a swagger and a half-naked young man on a bill poster 40ft high.

The day-to-day reality is that we need you to support us, the ones who have paid the rates, lived with the ups and downs of this city for hundreds of years, and voted for you.

So how about some compensation? A gesture. An admission that times are tough and the trams have had a catstrophic effect on all business in Edinburgh, big or small.

Local businesses are doing their best to remind people they are open for business but we are all fighting against the tide. A tide that could be turned by some joined-up thinking by the council.

“A select group of cities, including Cambridge, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, have the fundamentals to drive economic recovery,” said a financial publication this week. So, Edinburgh City Council, are you with us or against us?