Leith is becoming Edinburgh’s ‘Northern Powerhouse’ – Donald Anderson

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I never say no to being interviewed by students doing dissertations. I always think you should give something back and it has always been a pleasure to read what smart people say.

One young Heriot-Watt student, Gavin Robertson, did an excellent study of issues involved in regenerating Leith. It was thorough, robustly argued and he rightly dedicated it to John Crichton. He was a local councillor and the driving force behind the Leith project, which sought to tackle the severe unemployment and blight caused by the deindustrialisation of the late 70s and 80s.

The Leith Project started in 1981 when half of all unemployed in the Leith area had been jobless for over a year. Its mission was to attract subsidies and investment to tackle the area’s problems. I well remember watching the video of the Proclaimers’ anthem ‘Letter from America.’ It was a stark message about the devastation the 1980s brought to communities across Scotland. It was filmed in and around Leith Docks where the environment reflected the sombre lyrics.

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Today that environment has been transformed. The waterfront in Leith is a stunning location and streets that were empty and jobless are buzzing. There is a thriving community of small businesses in Leith with no less than 2,000 businesses employing under ten staff. Leith has been named by the Sunday Times as the best place to live in Britain, stating emphatically that Leith “… put the rest of the city to shame”.

Two factors will drive further transformation. Firstly, the trams are doing what they were intended to do, deliver regeneration. Investment in new flats and homes has rocketed. I recently visited the Engine Yard development off Leith Walk – it is fantastic, and on Leith Walk itself the streets will soon be filled with more bistros than boozers.

And although the first phase of tramworks was a disaster for Leith Walk, this time the council has learned the lessons. The project management skills of the staff are clearly miles better than those of the staff who worked on the first phase. There is still pain, but the works have been professionally delivered with a view to minimising the impact on traders and residents.

The other momentous change coming is the Green Freeport status achieved by Forth Ports. Forth Ports has already invested in delivering deep-water port facilities at Leith. For the first time, Leith will have a port that does not need to operate around the tides. It will also be at the centre of a new supply chain for Scotland’s renewable industry and at the centre of Scotland’s transition to net-zero carbon emissions.

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Rather than the subsidies envisaged by John Crichton, the financial incentives for the Green Freeport are being provided by tax breaks. The impact is the same. Investment will flow to create a thriving hub of industry, bringing new economy jobs into the heart of a community where they are needed.

The Proclaimers made a cameo appearance in the film Sunshine on LeithThe Proclaimers made a cameo appearance in the film Sunshine on Leith
The Proclaimers made a cameo appearance in the film Sunshine on Leith

I still listen to the Proclaimers’ Letter from America. It is a great song, but these days the story of Leith is vastly different. Rather than a place people leave to find work, Leith is a place people are moving to in droves, and the area is becoming a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ of which Leith and the city can be proud.

Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh City Council

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