Why Edinburgh council may regret its tourism power grab – John McLellan

Edinburgh City Council coalition’s centralisation of power means they can decide how Tourist Tax cash is spent, but they will also have to take the blame if things go wrong, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 7th November 2019, 6:00 am
Many residents are far from convinced that the benefits of tourism outweigh the downsides. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Many residents are far from convinced that the benefits of tourism outweigh the downsides. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The Edinburgh Tourism Strategy 2030 published this week aims to be the basis for building a strong future for a sector of the economy whose importance grows every day, but is also a tacit acceptance of a growing public alienation.

Produced by the industry-led Edinburgh Tourism Action Group, the 24-page paper shows an industry which is self-aware and willing to meet challenges but also the level of concern about a widespread perception that tourism is out of control.

“The city has traditionally focused on driving tourism growth, however... it’s time to adapt our approach by working to make this growth work better for the city,” it says. The inference is locals increasingly believe the downsides of more growth outweigh the benefits as they feel excluded from the attractions which bring in over four million visitors a year.

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“Some forms of tourism activity pose more challenges to the city than others,” it adds, “and that in the interests of all, there may be some difficult decisions to be made in the future.” What those difficult decisions might involve is not explained.

“Deep-seated challenges remain, especially when it comes to ensuring that all residents can participate in the city’s economic success.” Put another way, making sure everyone gets a slice of a cake is one of the biggest problems.

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The panacea is expected to be funding from an Edinburgh Tourism Tax, £14m or so, which not surprisingly the sector expects to be spent on tourism-related activities because that’s what the Scottish Government specifically ordered in September. The question is how and on what, and the strategy recommends establishing a group to oversee the effectiveness of Tourist Tax investments.

In a co-ordinated approach, the blueprint for the reform of Marketing Edinburgh, the council’s arms-length destination agency, circulated last week, was built around a new organisation called Edinburgh & Partners which would be funded from the levy.

Edinburgh’s own Berlin Wall

Here is where it all begins to get sticky because as of this week Marketing Edinburgh is dead and its plan in the bin after administration councillors, aided and abetted by the Greens and Lib Dems, voted to axe its funding. The ME board, including Lord Provost Frank Ross, resigned en masse as a result.

The current administration doesn’t like arms-length organisations and believes in central control because ALEOs are dominated by people who are neither councillors nor council officers. The successful development company EDI was first to go, now Marketing Edinburgh has gone, and it looks like the cross-hairs could now be trained on the Conference Centre. It won’t be forgotten that the EICC threw a spanner into the administration’s plans for Fountainbridge, a former EDI site, by suggesting part of the site could be a hotel it would run to guarantee cut-price accommodation for delegates. After the EICC, who would bet against Edinburgh Leisure being next?

But as the Princes Street Gardens fiasco has shown, funny things can happen when decision-making about tourism-related business falls to a small group of people within the council. Even senior administration councillors were unaware of the vast scale of the revised construction programme for Edinburgh’s Christmas, or that planning permission was needed but had not been sought. And last summer, the first time anyone knew the Berlin Wall was being recreated in the city centre was when black-out boards were erected along the Gardens railings so pedestrians couldn’t get a free view of the concerts. This is the second year in a row the council leader had to tweet panicked demands for action before the SNP cops the blame. The new strategy shows the scale of the job to bring the Edinburgh public on-side, but there is no way this administration will allow outside bodies to dictate how Tourism Tax revenue is spent. Centralising control means fewer people to blame and the buck stops with them.

John McLellan is the Conservative councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston