The report published by Edinburgh World Heritage recently, and the resultant significant media coverage, about the perceived authenticity of the Royal Mile is an important contribution to the wider debate about the future of Edinburgh’s wonderful Old Town, and indeed other “Old Towns” across Scotland.
As the dust settles on the report and its recommendations, which have naturally sparked a passionate debate ahead with the Festival season upon us, it is important that a considered view is taken on the way forward. This includes instilling a sense of perspective and acknowledging that Edinburgh is not the only city to have to manage its beautiful public realm alongside the many tourists who want to visit it.
Like other World Heritage Sites located in city centres, the key is finding a balance. To do this sustainably, in my view, means accepting three things.
Firstly, it means acknowledging that there are a wide range of interests from residents and local communities, to a diverse business environment, to publicly owned heritage sites, to elected representatives. Although each may have different views on the details of success, there is often more that unites these groups than divides them.
For instance, everyone agrees that heritage sites must be maintained as a wonderful city asset now and in the future. Everyone wants to see the local economy thrive because that’s what creates jobs and finances investment for the area. Local business owners want local communities to feel involved and comfortable as they are often loyal customers.
Secondly, discussions about where we live and our place of work often stir passions. However whilst passion and enthusiasm are important, the language often used to describe some of these issues is not helpful in terms of bringing the diverging groups of people together behind a common way forward. The truth is that people have different views on concepts like “authenticity”, and ultimately the Old Town’s world-renowned reputation means a spectrum of views needs to be taken into account.
Finally, we must acknowledge that the route to finding a sustainable and effective way forward is in striking a balance in all of these areas and working together – not setting one interest group against another. In the end, everyone wants the Royal Mile to thrive and so working together positively is the imminently sensible thing to do.
In my role with Scotland’s Towns Partnership, I’ve seen how innovative partnership working can solve many of these problems in other areas across Scotland. Models like Business Improvement Districts provide an effective forum to gather collective business opinion, build strong local community partnerships, and speak with a single unified voice to local decision-makers.
The recently launched Original Edinburgh initiative – trying to secure business improvement district status for Edinburgh’s Old Town – is a great opportunity to broker a vision for the future of the Royal Mile that can satisfy the many different views and interests. Edinburgh World Heritage is part of the Steering Group for the project, and wide ranging engagement with other residents and community groups is under way.
The lesson from across Scotland, the UK and the rest of Europe is that, where organisations like Original Edinburgh build strong partnerships with the local community and other groups of stakeholders, they can be very effective in building the consensus needed to forge a bright future for Old Towns.
Phil Prentice is the Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Programme Director of Scotland’s Improvement Districts