A proper new vision for city needs visionaries - John McLellan

It might have been a dank November evening, but Haymarket’s Platform Four on Friday was spilling over with teenagers dressed for somewhat balmier weather, all set for a steamy night at the 02 Academy for a raucous singalong with Glaswegian busker singer-songwriter Dylan John Thomas.
An artist's impression of the Dunard CentreAn artist's impression of the Dunard Centre
An artist's impression of the Dunard Centre

An hour or so later at the opposite end of the Scottish cultural spectrum and age demographic, the Usher Hall was half full for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Chorus performance of Sir James Macmillan’s acclaimed Christmas Oratorio, its Scottish premiere and conducted by the man himself.

It takes all sorts, and at least Edinburgh can usually cater for all tastes, but it’s a good illustration of the market and marketing for popular and classical music, when a hall for 3,000 is bouncing for a relative newcomer, and only around 1,000 mainly elderly people are there to see one of the few genuine giants of contemporary composition, not just in the UK but globally.

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So as plans for a new 8,500-seat arena at Edinburgh Park take shape, while the cost of the Dunard Concert Hall on St Andrew Square reaches £114 million from an original guesstimate of £45m, it’s pretty clear which one is likely to make money or need continued support.

As long as planners don’t insist the arena should be the modern equivalent of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, a functional, practical building on a cleared site can be delivered cheaply and quickly, in sharp contrast to the Dunard scheme.

A new home for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, it looks very like a repeat of the Holyrood fiasco, where egos, a marquee architect and a difficult site combined to send the bill through the roof. Now Edinburgh Council – or you the taxpayer – has been asked to fork out anther £2m on top of the £5m already pledged and it’s unlikely to be the last call on the public purse.

But we are, as they say, where we are, and with the two new venues, the refurbished Kings Theatre – baled out with another £7m of public money this year – and the new National Galleries spaces, Edinburgh will be better placed than it has even been to offer top quality arts and entertainment for all tastes.

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So, in the time before the opening of the Dunard (now expected in 2028) and the arena (possibly as early as 2027) there is an opportunity to produce a coordinated plan both to market the city’s new cultural attractions and to prepare for the interest they should generate. There are three hotels near Edinburgh Park, so maybe there will be demand for more?

Some won’t like the sound of attracting more visitors and increasing demand for accommodation, but it would be short-sighted and financially imprudent to spend tens of millions of taxpayers’ money on new venues which rely only on local audiences.

Therefore, there needs to be a better plan for Edinburgh’s future than the present battle between commercial interests, higher education and housing, driven largely by a lack of land and the council’s inadequate 2030 planning blueprint.

Successive council administrations have failed to deliver an achievable framework for the future, relying on the fatuous 2050 City Vision, so rubbish it had to be relaunched earlier this year. Edinburgh desperately needs a proper vision, but that needs visionaries.