How dismal 1970s Edinburgh was transformed into one of world’s best cities – Donald Anderson

In the 1970s, a ‘housing action area’ was created on the edge of Edinburgh’s New Town to tackle decaying buildings. Today a three-bedromm flat in the same place would cost more than £500,000 writes Donald Anderson.

Monday, 23rd December 2019, 6:00 am
A recent survey rated Edinburgh as the city with the fourth best quality of life in the world

‘There’s nobody left in my stair now, but I’ve always kept an eye on it. You have people breaking into the empty flats all the time. Either they’re wanting a place to sleep or they are there to steal the furniture. I got the housing department to clear the old furniture out. But I told them to leave the brass letter boxes and things on the doors. It looks so terrible when they rip them off. I kept an eye on them all the time but when my back was turned, they had them off. I’m glad to be going now, I’ve had enough.”

So spoke a man from West Crosscauseway in 1970s Edinburgh when the city centre population fell by nearly 50 per cent. The quote is from The Unmaking of Edinburgh, which contains some amazing stories. Back then there were 25 ‘Housing Action Areas’, designated to combat decaying building and living conditions. Five action areas were at the fringes of the New Town including St Stephen Street, where a three-bedroom flat could now set you back over £500,000.

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We think that the council gets criticised now, but back then a case was highlighted of a building in Nicolson Street that councillors voted to save. However, council officers disagreed, and the book bears an image of the building being demolished. In another case the Planning Committee gave a grant to refurbish a tenement whilst the Building Control Committee gave another grant to fund its demolition. Remarkable.

Better than Vienna?

The truth is that all cities in the UK tackled declining populations after the war. Edinburgh’s decline continued and in 1981 the population was estimated at 415,000. Ten years later the population nudged up by 1,000, and the corner had been turned. City centre living was becoming much more popular. I have outlined elsewhere the huge transformation due to the ‘accidental’ 90 per cent Repairs Grants, which saw more than £380 million of taxpayers money invested in tenements and the property market in Edinburgh never looked back.

Two-bedroom flats were built apace. Some people complain about hotels and student flats now, but when I was a councillor it was those two-bedroom flats that attracted public opprobrium. In Gorgie/Dalry, industries moved out and in came the two-bedroom flats. The population rocketed by a third. Gorgie/Dalry has gone from area of multiple deprivation to an increasingly desirable area in which to live.

Over the same time, developments took place that strengthened the city centre. The Exchange Financial District – home to the now record profit-making Edinburgh International Conference Centre – was built, securing 5,000 jobs in the city centre. George Street became a hub for finance and other industries. The council moved staff from a plethora of scattered offices into the city centre. The Parliament (after much wrangling) was built in the city centre too. Edinburgh’s festivals also flourished, creating a year-round tourism industry (and jobs) that is the envy of other UK cities.

It’s not perfect, we need proper management of Airbnbs and the sooner we get a tourist tax the better. But a recent survey rated Edinburgh as the city with the fourth best quality of life in the world, above Vienna and many others and just below Zurich, Wellington and Copenhagen. Modern Edinburgh can hold its head high again as one of the finest cities there is.