Kevin Buckle: Leith must be cool and most tartan tat banished

Shops have to appeal to visitors, because locals are all busy ordering online. Picture: Jon Savage
Shops have to appeal to visitors, because locals are all busy ordering online. Picture: Jon Savage
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If there are two things that Edinburgh council now seems to agree on, it is that Leith needs to be made the coolest place on the planet and that tartan tat needs to be curbed if not culled completely.

Now with a new five-year management plan that also includes the Scottish Government and Edinburgh World Heritage, many of the problems that have cropped up regularly in this column are to be addressed.

With Leith at least, the council knows what it wants even if it may not fully understand the logistics, but with tartan tat it only seems to know what it doesn’t want!

There is a very good argument these days for councils deciding how they want their high streets to look rather than just leaving it to the market, but if that is indeed what Edinburgh council wants to do then it needs to make clear exactly what businesses are deemed desirable and lead the way by offering those businesses shops that they can afford.

Unfortunately this is only the start of what is needed should the council intervene. Even if the council came up with a plan to have a more diverse and interesting high street that doesn’t mean the public will agree.

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I recently heard one comment from Edinburgh World Heritage that the presence of too many shops catering for tourists was driving locals away. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Shops are forced to cater for tourists simply because the local population is too busy ordering online to frequent their local shops any more.

As such, the problem is far more complex than simply making the high street look more appealing. As with Leith, where the problem will be persuading people to visit, shops can only do their best but if folk prefer to shop with Amazon it will take some fairly drastic state intervention to change that!

Edinburgh is luckier than most cities in that it can directly affect the high street with its own decisions. It is a tourist city and these days it is tourists that are more likely to be supportive of shops. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely things that can be done to bring back more locals and the indoor market idea I mentioned recently got a big thumbs up from all sides.

Overall though the trend to online shopping cannot be stopped so all concerned need to be realistic about what can be achieved.

As for Leith, the council has more chance of controlling the situation through their planning and licensing departments.

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The recently launched #saveleithwalk campaign is already proving very popular and hopefully can meet with some success.

One thing is for sure and that is that Leith has the chance to try and get the balance right between visitors and locals from the start.

It will always be the case that improving an area in any way will attract developers and businesses that aren’t sympathetic to what has made the area what it is and New York is possibly the best example of that.

Of course Edinburgh also needs to try and get the balance right throughout the city. There really is a worry in some quarters about what’s actually going to happen. While it’s a good thing the council has accepted all these issues need to be addressed, understanding the practicalities is far more important and that needs far more than reports and buzzwords.