Groan if you must, dear reader, but the City Chambers would be ideal for conversion to a top-quality hotel - John McLellan
There are encouraging signs, like Gucci and Uniqlo announcing new stores, and last month the Scottish Retail Consortium reported a 4.7 per cent increase in Edinburgh city centre footfall.
But earlier this month, the Essential Edinburgh traders group reported numbers on Princes Street were still 15.9 per cent behind 2019, so there is still a long way to go.
Inflation and tax rises have taken their toll and retailers would be right to question what civic leaders are going to do about it, and it seems that encouraging city centre-based staff to spend more time in the office isn’t part of the plan.
A report earlier this month revealed that Edinburgh Council’s Waverley Court headquarters is only 14 per cent full, and while some of that is down to staff reductions, it still represents an enthusiasm for working from home which senior officials do nothing to reverse.
Indeed, the 20-minute neighbourhood concept suggests no-one should be in the middle of town regularly if they don’t live nearby.
The Scottish Government’s city centre base at St Andrews House is nearly two-thirds empty, and it will probably be the same story at the UK Government’s new Queen Elizabeth House offices, with a capacity of nearly 3,000.
Rather than get people back working in person, Edinburgh Council is now seeking to rent out desks in Waverley Court, but only 25 per cent of available capacity, leaving a lot of space in which to roll around.
The aim is to raise £1.7m to help cover annual running costs of over £3m, but there is no guarantee that level of revenue could be achieved, not least because companies who rent out ad hoc office space are trying to keep costs down themselves, and with other large organisations scaling back too, it’s a buyer’s market.
And then there is the City Chambers itself. Officers moved out long ago and it’s noticeable how some councillors have stuck to attending committee meetings by video than making their way to the High Street.
It should therefore be eminently possible for all council business to be held in Waverley Court, including formal meetings, which would help use up that spare 60 per cent and still have the capacity to bring in rental revenue.
It would be a symbolic step to take for the council to give up the Chambers, but it costs over £2m a year to run another underused building and, groan if you must, dear reader, it would be ideal for conversion to a top-quality hotel which could still host civic functions like the receptions for Sunday morning St Giles services.
Bits of it have been gradually hived off, and it’s as much in use for weddings as council business so the principle has been established, and with a purpose built in-and-out drop-off in the heart of the Old Town and some of the city’s best views, it would have a ready-made advantage over its competitors.
Given the choice, I bet I know which location Richard Branson would have preferred for the Virgin Hotel.
I can’t imagine the council’s estates people have not considered this option, so the question is what’s holding them back?