Open Streets and closed minds at Edinburgh City Chambers – Kevin Buckle

When the needs of businesses are so often overlooked or ignored it’s hard not to be cynical about the council’s grand plans for the future, writes Kevin Buckle

Saturday, 18th January 2020, 6:00 am
A traffic-freen Victoria Street during one of the council's Open Streets days. Picture: Neil Hanna

Edinburgh Council has certainly set the bar high recently, outlining its hopes and expectations with everything from trams to Fife to the full pedestrianisation of George Street.

The announcements have been met with a certain amount of cynicism and it certainly didn’t help when senior councillors were immediately contradicted by business leaders at Essential Edinburgh on the possibility of George Street ever being traffic-free.

I have some sympathy with those who also feel there are more pressing problems to get right first. Potholes will top many people’s list, but for me what was so depressing was how the Open Streets trials failed to improve and failed businesses.

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There was no better example than the road closure at the bottom of Cockburn Street. A minute’s walk from my Waverley Mall shop, I would pop out each month to check on what was happening and it was sad to see that the early mistakes were never corrected.

Initially there was a sign saying Cockburn Street was closed but not explaining why. There were two folk in yellow vests standing in front of the sign available to answer questions, I assume, but many of the people I saw hesitated and then started to walk up towards The Mound.

I mentioned this to the organisers and was told that things did need to get better and it was a learning process. Unfortunately in all the following Open Streets nothing changed, except that instead of two folk in yellow vests there was only one now perched to one side.

On every occasion I saw people turning away even though other folk were clearly visible on the street. When I finally brought up that nothing had changed I was told it was disappointing I felt that way, as if there was any other way to feel.

Given how basic this is it is very hard to imagine these far bigger plans being successfully carried out and sadly in the same way businesses in Cockburn Street have been adversely affected by the road closed sign these far bigger plans often have adverse effects on businesses too.

Meanwhile what seemed like good news to control Airbnbs soon turned into a scare story that the licensing would overwhelm the council. Of course, whatever the cost of the licensing it will need to be, and can be, recovered from the licence fee.

Again this reminded me of the reasoning behind the blanket A-board ban. It was accepted that this would be extremely detrimental to some businesses whose A-boards caused no hazard and an obvious solution was these businesses could apply for a licence for their board.

However it will surprise nobody that licensing was dismissed by the council on the basis they didn’t have the manpower and it would be too expensive despite the fact that with some businesses losing large sums of money they would happily pay whatever fee was necessary.

Given the lack of councillors with business backgrounds it is no surprise how often the interests of businesses are overlooked and ignored but I do think that once the enormity of the “Edinburgh St James Effect” becomes a reality they will have no option but to dramatically rethink how the needs of high street retail in particular are considered.