Kevin Buckle: Will the council ever get the balance right?

There seems to be more understanding these days that there is a balance of interests in Edinburgh that needs to be recognised and acted upon, though as yet there is little evidence of any change.

Saturday, 23rd December 2017, 6:00 am
Edinburgh's Christmas market (Picture: Ian Rutherford)

Tourists vs locals, year-round traders vs pop-up markets, the heart of the city centre controlled by Essential Edinburgh vs the surrounding areas – all these issues have been raised but many question whether the vested interests involved will allow any change to the status quo.

These concerns all overlap and never more so than at Christmas. Princes Street, already the busiest street in Edinburgh, has dozens of attractions to encourage visitors to stay within a very small area of the city centre to the point where it has now been accepted that something must be done to stop the overcrowding which regularly occurs.

There are certainly so many people in a relatively small area that visitor and local alike cannot be happy. On the other hand, Essential Edinburgh exists to try and keep folk in their area at the expense of people exploring further so something has to give if there is to be any change.

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At the same time, those very crowds are encouraged to spend their money at pop-up markets, leaving shops just slightly further away empty or at least quiet. Things have got noticeably worse now with even food and drink retailers complaining they see a lot less business than they used to from visitors.

There is a real irony in this in that when these markets are justified, it is because of the great economic benefit. Wearing my statistician’s hat, the figures are flawed from start to finish but just when you think they can’t get any more ludicrous the final figure is boosted by using an impact multiplier, calculated decades ago, on the basis the market increases the takings of neighbouring businesses. You couldn’t make it up!

Many argue for a compromise, quite rightly pointing out that a smaller, “quality” arts and vintage market would be more fitting and also questioning whether most of the food stalls are even necessary. There are so many food places within a ten-minute walk of Princes Street and yet there are endless pop-up food stalls encouraging people not to leave the area.

The solution seems obvious. If people leave the immediate area to get food, all the surrounding businesses will benefit and the overcrowding will be alleviated. Most folk these days only have a certain amount of money to spend and more of that will go to businesses that trade in Edinburgh permanently. Already a huge chunk of a visitor’s spending goes on accommodation and food so what little is left needs to go to those who pay business rates all the year.

The argument about the quality of the stallholders is that the stalls are so expensive that only those selling cheap goods from the Far East at inflated prices can afford to be there. Therein lies a clue as to how much money is being taken by the market in order to pay these high rents, but nobody, including the council, seems to have a figure.

The next question is who is getting these high rents and does the council benefit? If making the most money is the only concern, then clearly the problem is not going to be solved. If the stalls were priced reasonably and stallholders chosen based on what qualities they could add to the market, it would be a great improvement.

Few question whether the rides should be there, though there are those who make a good case for them being more spread out. Maybe next year the council should insist on a trial of a smaller, higher-quality market with just a few food stalls and lots of signage pointing people towards places where they can get food and drink.

Of course the organisers of the Christmas and New Year festivities and Essential Edinburgh all have good reason to want none of this. The proposed Old Town BID, even if successful, will be no match for such a powerful lobby so it is therefore up to Edinburgh council to do whatever is necessary. Councillors are united in agreeing that visitors need to be encouraged to see more of what Edinburgh has to offer and this solves all the issues at once. There is less congestion, nearby businesses benefit and locals and visitors alike are happier.

What Edinburgh council needs is somebody responsible to make sure their overall strategy objectives are delivered and the council’s strategy and policy are clear. It just needs to be implemented without hindrance from those pesky vested interests. Just getting folk up to the High Street, down to the Grassmarket, into the New Town and along to the West End will be a start. Leith may take a little longer.

Luckily the council created such a position a couple of years ago under the title Executive Director – Place. Hopefully next year things will be different.