Kevin Buckle: Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town should work together

The Edinburghs Covent Garden plan for the Grassmarket never made it off the drawing board. Picture: Greg Macvean
The Edinburghs Covent Garden plan for the Grassmarket never made it off the drawing board. Picture: Greg Macvean
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I saw the news that there was a proposed Old Town business improvement district or “BID” with mixed feelings. I was in the Grassmarket for the introduction of the Grassmarket BID and was somebody who thought it a good idea at the time. A BID is meant to do what it says on the tin, in that it finds ways to improve the district it represents for businesses in return for a small levy.

The reasons the Grassmarket BID failed so abysmally would take far too long to go into just now but half of the problem I would say was that it was just too small, especially when competing with Essential Edinburgh, the BID that represents the city centre based around Princes Street.

The new proposal for an Old Town BID certainly covers a much wider area from the Canongate to the Grassmarket, though it will still never have the financial clout or influential players of Essential Edinburgh. The key point here though is whether it makes sense for two rival parts of central Edinburgh to compete at all.

Make no mistake the current situation with all the Christmas and New Year attractions being based almost solely within the area controlled by Essential Edinburgh has been to the detriment of those businesses in surrounding areas and nobody felt that worse than the Grassmarket. After spending so much on pedestrianising the Grassmarket, Edinburgh Council let the businesses there down badly by withdrawing funding and support almost immediately afterwards.

A few vocal residents backed by local councillors even managed to stop a small Victorian Market taking place in the Grassmarket one Christmas while plans to turn the Grassmarket into Edinburgh’s Covent Garden never made it beyond the newspaper headline stage.

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The Old Town BID has far greater potential but must learn from previous BID mistakes and be sure to deliver to the businesses involved value for money in the levy they have to pay and that isn’t necessarily easy.

Even the Grassmarket had a few busy events, but if all people do is buy food and drink then that is of no use to the other businesses. Even worse, if the crowds put off other shoppers and takings are down, shops cannot be expected to be happy.

BIDs can be found all over the world and have had varying success. In New York, which is obviously many times the size of Edinburgh and already with many distinct districts, there are actually 74 BIDs but they all come under one association in the NYC BID. Surely it can’t be too much to ask that Edinburgh’s BIDs can work together?

Another issue that is a worldwide problem is that while these BID areas are very keen to support small independent businesses, those same businesses rarely have time to get involved so, at best, you end up with ideas that come from those who are not small businesses themselves and, at worst, these businesses are ignored and others with different agendas hold sway.

Social media will play a part. The Old Town BID, which can be found at @EdinOldTownbid, only launched recently but it is already a worry that very few affected by the BID are actually following.

Tweeting information to 27 followers who are nearly all not traders is not the way to get information across and this mirrors the apathy the Grassmarket BID suffered. Surely even those who may not want the BID should follow just to be kept up to date on what is happening.

This of course is not unusual and organisers normally claim it’s a “soft” launch with more to follow but truth be told it is never too early to get people involved and get the message out.

When I went to the first Grassmarket BID meeting, at the top of the agenda was improving street cleanliness – in fact there was talk of little else. When I asked what would be next once the streets were sparkling, there weren’t really any other ideas people felt as remotely strongly about.

Having not long moved to the area but having passed through the Grassmarket regularly for decades, I had never considered cleanliness a problem. Then as a trader, yes, occasionally somebody might be sick outside but you would wash it away straight away and would certainly not have considered waiting for a team of street cleaners to come, should that have been an option. It is therefore worrying to see the same issue at the top of the list for the Old Town BID. Trailing behind in second is stronger marketing, something that should easily be the number one priority.

The BID could be in place as early as next May and certainly things need to improve sooner rather than later, but whether the BID can successfully tackle the general problems faced by the High Street and the specific problems encountered by the Old Town is yet to be seen.

The Old Town BID can be found at www.theoldtownbid.com.