Iain Pope: McCall Smith is wrong about Edinburgh's tartan tat

Alexander McCall Smith is as Edinburgh as a Morningside maiden aunt. When he talks about this city, people quite rightly take note.

Tuesday, 26th December 2017, 6:00 am
People from across the world spend their hard-earned cash on sampling our citys delights. Picture: Ian Georgeson

And when he warns of the danger of Edinburgh turning into a “vulgar wasteland of tourist tat shops, big hotels and nothing much else” by 2050, doubtless a few ears will have pricked up.

His argument is that the insidious march of city centre hotels and the expansion of Airbnb and their ilk is pushing the real folk who live in the middle of town to join an exodus to the burbs.

His solution is to build hotels on the periphery and regulate short-term tourism letting so that real families can continue to live here.

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Well I am one of those city centre residents, and I still love it.

When we had our kids a decade ago, in those heady days before the crash when Fred Goodwin was still a financial genius, Vladimir Romanov was a Gorgie God and Edinburgh wallowed in a sea of hubris, we were faced with the same dilemma facing a lot of young(ish) families.

On the one side of the equation, if we had moved out we could have probably traded up for more room, a garden, a garage (a shed!!) and settled into a life of clubby sweaterdom and domestic bliss.

On the other, the flat had been a happy, party place and was big enough that we could still all rub along together happily.

As it was, the arse falling out of the economy kind of put paid to any notion of moving anywhere.

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And anyway, my wise wife reckoned that she (and it has been mostly she) could live with lugging two small children up four flights of stairs day, in day out, and that they would soon be able to manage the 78 steps themselves.

The disruption that the trams brought to our front door was, in the grand scheme of things, hardly the end of the world, and had the happy byproduct of halting cars going past our flat for years, yes years, while we went through the ritual of training our toddlers that playing in traffic was A Bad Thing.

So we settled into city centre life, we joined together with the other folk in the close and turned our overgrown jungle of a drying green out back into a cracking little garden, and we patted ourselves on the back for having made the right call.

Life on the main drag isn’t so bad. The new dawn chorus of the ‘ting ting’ of the tram and the rattle of the wheels on visitors’ cases as they plod their hungover way to the airport bus stop have both become woven into our soundscape.

One of the benefits of having made the decision to stay in town is that we get to witness daily what people from other parts of Europe and beyond give up their hard-earned cash to come and sample for a precious weekend.

My post-dinner walk – when I can rouse myself to take it – takes me along Shandwick Place, Princes Street, over North Bridge, up the Royal Mile, round Johnston Terrace, onto Castle Terrace, across Lothian Road, past that square in front of the Sheraton, over the little bridge across to Rutland Square, and back round Atholl Crescent to my bit on the main road.

How many picture postcard views, how much history, how much fabulous architecture is there in that little 45-minute jaunt?

Yes there are a lot of tourist tat shops in that stretch, but there are also lots of tourists wanting tat, so, y’know, live and let live. What’s better? Tat or boarded-up shops?

Where I agree with Alexander McCall Smith is the need to keep the city alive for real people. I work with a lot of young colleagues who are attempting to get on the housing ladder. Hearing their tales of disappointment as they vainly try to outbid short-term, buy-to-let investors with deeper pockets is heartbreaking.

I was in Amsterdam the other day for a work thing, and I was struck by the number of folk who live right in the centre of town. Like us here in Edinburgh, they are struggling with how to regulate tourism so that local people aren’t squeezed out. Regulation is coming as sure as the gun goes off at One, and rightly so. Otherwise McCall Smith’s prediction will be bang on, and Edinburgh city centre will become an antiseptic London, or a Vancouver.

But in the meantime, we all need to ask ourselves if we are part of the problem.

When I got home from Amsterdam what was the first thing I did? I got on Airbnb to check the prices of a weekend.

We can’t have our space cake and eat it.