‘A Don Deal’ read the front of the Edinburgh Evening News almost 20 years ago to the day – I am feeling old. I was elected Council Leader and Donald Dewar was elected First Minister. We were pictured shaking hands as the great man was going in to be sworn in as First Minister in Scotland’s new parliament.
So, looking back over 20 years, how has the city done? Well turns out that the city has done fantastically well. It’s far from perfect, but as cities go, Edinburgh is almost as good as it gets.
One commentator wrote recently that the policies pursued by the city were remarkably “consistent”, speculating that that meant Edinburgh was run by council officers. The possibility that the policies had been the right ones and delivered success wasn’t apparently worth considering. I’d argue that politicians in Edinburgh have actually been pursuing policies, which though far from perfect, have delivered for Edinburgh.
Never in Scotland’s long and proud history has any community of people lived in such relative prosperity, and high levels of employment as has happened in Edinburgh over the last 20 years. Indeed, we don’t really measure absolute poverty any more because it’s been almost completely vanquished. We now measure “relative poverty”, and quite right too. Nearly a quarter of the city lives in relative poverty and it’s still at the top of the political agenda to be resolved, but let’s not ignore the undoubted success that’s been achieved for most people.
So, the highlights of that success? Well, it’s the economy mainly, which has made virtually everyone in the city better off. Unemployment is at historic lows, and Edinburgh is the strongest city economy in the UK outside London. Jobs have been prioritised, and that means if you live in Edinburgh you are more likely to be in a job, and in a better job than if you live almost anywhere else. READ MORE: Edinburgh 2029: ‘Tram loop’, car ban and pedestrian zones part of 10-year city vision
Despite the downturn, Edinburgh’s strengths helped the city bounce back. Our financial institutions are damaged, but still strong. Helping us through those dark years also is a tourism industry that is Edinburgh’s biggest home-grown success. Many criticise the council for “giving priority to tourists over residents”. Not so. Edinburgh prioritises tourism because it provides jobs at all levels from the cleaner to the chief executive. Remove tourism, and you’d bring back mass unemployment.
The strengths of those “twin peaks” during the wonderful summer festivals, and the UK’s second biggest winter festivals – they were the biggest, but London got its act together – have delivered jobs and low unemployment. Those tourists give us more and better shops, more theatres, more restaurants and an array of attractions that no city of half a million people could otherwise support.
Smart investment has also delivered – trams, soon to be finished properly thankfully. The wonderful new Edinburgh St James opening next year, and a scale of investment in the city centre that means that there are now no buildings in the World Heritage site that are on the “At Risk Register” that aren’t either proposed for development or under construction. When Princes Street faced the abrupt closure of the iconic Frasers store, up pops tourism to solve the problem with a great new visitor attraction.
So, do we just put our feet up and say that everything’s fine. Well no, those Airbnbs need tackling, and visitors need to be spread better throughout the city. Let’s redouble our efforts to improve our city, and work harder to help everyone become better off, especially that 24 per cent who still struggle in relative poverty.
I left office declaring that Edinburgh was the best city in Britain, we can make it better still.