Edinburgh Council is playing Monopoly with your money by getting into hotel business in a financially and environmentally rash way – Susan Rae

The future for Edinburgh comes down to two simple words: greener and fairer.

By Susan Rae
Wednesday, 29th September 2021, 4:55 am
Edinburgh Council may think it has built a hotel on Park Lane but the world has changed (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Edinburgh Council may think it has built a hotel on Park Lane but the world has changed (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Edinburgh is committed to dramatic change in transport, energy use, waste and all the rest. But changing in a way which tackles poverty, narrowing the gap between rich and poor.

Past economic decisions don’t always measure up well. Take the Gyle shopping centre in the early 1990s, a joint venture involving the then district council. The ultimate model of an out-of-town retail park, largely accessed by private car, sits very uneasily with the future direction Edinburgh needs now.

Has much changed? Not necessarily, looking at the city council’s involvement in two of Edinburgh’s largest projects: the St James Quarter in the east of the city centre, and Haymarket in the west.

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Granted, the old St James shopping mall was an eyesore (although not everyone thinks there is any change now). And, maybe, if there are going to be shopping centres, they are better to be in city centres rather than on the outskirts; better to be in Edinburgh rather than people travelling to Glasgow or Newcastle. But, in truth, St James, like all big retail, is part of the problem – fast food, fast fashion, growth for growth’s sake and a generic retail ‘offer’ that could be anywhere in world.

So why is the council sinking over £60m of public money into it?

The argument is that this money pays for improvements to the public realm in and around the St James area and, anyway, will be paid back to the council by increases in non-domestic rates.

But, all over Edinburgh, developers are required to improve public realm through planning agreements, none of them with the scale of direct funding seen at the St James. And non-domestic rates income is needed for a lot of purposes – to fund schools to educate the staff at St James, to provide transport links to get the customers there and also social care, parks, street cleaning – all the other things that make cities civilised.

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So it’s unclear why the global investors behind the St James centre really needed that extra £60m sweetener.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the city centre, the council’s decision to take a long lease of the city’s biggest hotel (currently being built by Quartermile at Haymarket) is even more astonishing.

The hotel will then be sub-leased to council company Edinburgh International Conference Centre which will use the profits (if there are any) to invest in improvement of the Morrison Street conference centre.

This at a time when a Code Red climate crisis throws up huge scepticism about a model of business tourism involving thousands flying across the world to meet up for a few days, and when a global pandemic has sparked new creativity on keeping the flow of ideas internationally without quite so many unnecessary business junkets.

The council, playing Monopoly, may think it has built a hotel on Park Lane and can watch the profits roll in. But the world has changed and the council’s decision to tie itself into the hotel industry may prove as financially rash as it is environmentally.

And if greener and fairer mean anything, harder choices need made in the future.

Susan Rae is a Scottish Green councillor for Leith Walk

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