Martin Hannan: Council has to consult people

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Over the next few weeks and months, the city centre of Edinburgh may well be changed beyond all recognition without so much as a by-your-leave to the people who really count – namely the ­citizens of this city.

Last week’s announcement of the proposed changes to Princes Street and George Street did not exactly come as a bolt from the blue. Any sensible person could see that the arrival of the trams was always going to force some changes in the city centre, and the council is taking advantage of the situation to bring in the long -mooted pedestrianisation of much of Princes Street.

The plans for the Royal Mile have also been launched, and again ­pedestrianisation features largely in the proposals that will transform our most historic thoroughfare.

Add to that the new plans for ­Caltongate and you have a pretty comprehensive redevelopment of the city centre.

Now, correct me if I am wrong, but while most of the manifestoes of the various political parties, including my own party, the SNP, did mention wanting to improve the built ­environment, I do not think anyone went to the polls thinking they were electing a council that was going to make such massive changes.

Certainly the residents of central Edinburgh, and there are many ­thousands of them, were never told that the Royal Mile might end up being car free for much of its length.

Now, I do not know whether those residents approve of the ideas in the council’s plans or not. It may well be that pedestrianisation is welcomed by them. Then again, they may ­detest the whole notion. The point is that nobody knows how the public feels about the plans, and given the ­council’s usual response to public consultation – ‘thanks for your views, but we’re going to do what we want anyway’ – you can take it that the ­alterations to the Royal Mile are a fait accompli. Similarly, the new development planned for Caltongate will be warmly welcomed by the council and pushed through the planning process in no time at all. The embarrassment of this second ‘Hole In The Ground’ is such that everyone involved from councillors to developers wants to see something built on the site.

As it happens, I think that the new compromise plans for Caltongate are perfectly fine. I also agree with the partial pedestrianisation of Princes Street. But can someone please tell us exactly where buses, lorries and cars will go once they are taken off ­Princes Street, George Street and the Royal Mile?

It’s all very well to say that ­alternative routes will be promoted, but how many vehicles will now have to transfer each day to Queen Street, or to the Grassmarket and Cowgate?

Can we see the statistical analysis of traffic movements, present and proposed? Or is it the case, as I ­suspect, the council just wants cars in particular kept out of the city centre?

It needs to be remembered that the trams are only going to have a limited effect on public transport within the city. They are absolutely not a panacea for the very obvious problems which we have with public transport.

We need to have buses that take people into and out of the city centre, and that means bus routes going along Princes Street and George Street. If one half of Princes Street, for example, is going to be given over to pedestrians, then that only leaves the other half for trams and buses. So how will that work?

The idea appears to be that there will be fewer buses routed along Princes Street, which would appear to negate the concept of making our main central shopping area more ­accessible to local people and visitors alike.

It will not be such a problem on the Royal Mile as there are only a couple of bus routes which pass that way at present, but I can certainly see ­objections coming from the bus tour companies for whom the Royal Mile is an important part of the experience they give to tourists.

That’s just a couple of the transport difficulties that I can foresee from these various plans for the city centre, and there are other issues that need to be addressed.

I agree that trying to create a cafe culture is a good idea, though no one in their right mind would surely suggest that this is a year-round possibility.

I also think that we should tackle the problem of tacky souvenir shops displaying their wares up and down the Royal Mile and elsewhere, and I would love to think that the council would bring in new policies to ensure that shop fronts in Princes Street no longer look quite so appalling and tatty. I doubt if such proposals would be legally enforceable, but the council should try.

My main point is that with these proposals for Princes Street and its environs, for the Royal Mile and ­Caltongate, the council is going to drive forward a massive amount of change which, like it or not, will transform the very character of ­Edinburgh’s city centre.

Just for once, can the people of Edinburgh be fully informed of what is going to happen to the city, and more importantly, be given a ­genuine chance to state their views and have them heeded, because all these changes are too important to be left to councillors.