Edinburgh is a fantastic city, growing year on year with world-class galleries and festivals, companies and charity headquarters, tourist attractions, and government institutions. As a capital we’ve a special, hard-earned reputation that we need to live up to.
We have a city that can still surprise and inspire long standing residents, never mind first-time tourists. At last week’s Book Festival lecture, Look Up Edinburgh, the audience was showered with images of statues and decorations on buildings that I suspect most of us have never noticed.
We have fantastic buildings, not just in the World Heritage Site and a legacy of parks and gardens that make Edinburgh a city that’s great to live in.
But our capital status and our rich historical and environmental heritage comes with big challenges too.
Change is constant and our challenge in Edinburgh is making the most of change to serve current and future generations of Edinburgh residents.
Protecting, enhancing and maintaining the fabric of our buildings is a crucial part of the picture if we are to retain people in the city not just in the historic core but further from the centre.
We are quietly losing traditional housing stock to short-term lets. I’ve campaigned to change the law on party flats because of the massive disruption they create to residents.
But there’s also the drip drip effect of people moving out of areas that used to be thriving residential communities: the hassle of common repairs and maintenance, the encroachment of short-term lets in residential stairs and the impact of our nighttime economy all impact on people’s quality of life.
Gap sites that would previously have gone for affordable housing built by the council or housing associations increasingly go to developers for hotels or private student accommodation with no local or affordable opportunities for people to buy or rent a home.
We need to have a stronger focus on making the most of our older buildings and we need to value and support the ability of people living in the heart of our historic city.
Historic Scotland is able to make targeted one-off buildings grants, most recently to the City Obervatory and the Castle Mill works in Fountainbridge. The Edinburgh World Heritage Trust has done a fantastic job of identifying historic buildings in need of investment and maintenance. Crucially they have been able to support residents and owners to work together, for example on the Well Court building in the Dean Village.
But there are too many buildings and gap sites which lie empty for years, causing blight and representing missed opportunities.
We need regeneration projects of the sort we saw in 70s and 80s with the public sector in driving seat, not just corporate and business interests and support from both the Scottish Government and the council to make it happen.
We also need support for owners to get on with repairs and maintenance. Where they have agreed a Tenement Management Scheme the council should support them by paying the missing shares and claiming those shares back from owners shirking their responsibilities – far cheaper than a statutory notice. We need the backstop of a better-managed statutory notice scheme, but more needs to be done to support building owners to get on with investing in their properties to make them fit for the future.
Sarah Boyack is Labour MSP for Lothian and Shadow Cabinet Member Rural Affairs, Food & the Environment