Brian Ferguson: Not quite a poisoned chalice, but Edinburgh councillors face many challenges

Newly-elected councillors face a mountain to climb in Edinburgh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Newly-elected councillors face a mountain to climb in Edinburgh. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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IS Edinburgh the plum prize? Brian Ferguson says councillors elected today in the capital will face a tought test

ON the face of it, taking charge of Edinburgh City Council is the plum prize up for grabs in the local election battlefield.

But the reality may not quite be so rosy once the dust has settled for the newly-elected councillors in Scotland’s capital.

It appears to have proved resilient against the impact of the economic downturn, continuing to attract new jobs and investment in recent years while other parts of the UK have struggled in comparison.

It is less than four years since the banking crash claimed both RBS and HBOS as its highest profile victims in the UK - two pillars of the city’s financial services sector, which had to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

The wider impact of the financial services crisis saw developments grind to a halt and housebuilders go to the wall, while the retail sector struggled to cope with the enduring saga of the long-delayed tram project.

Yet although around 4000 financial services jobs were to be lost in Edinburgh, it is thought they have been mitigated by gains elsewhere, with firms like Amazon, Avaloq, Tesco Bank, Virgin Money and BlackRock among those announcing major new jobs boosts over the last couple of years.

The last few months alone have seen Edinburgh selected ahead of 31 rivals as the home of the UK’s Green Investment Bank while Leith has been chosen as the site of a major new wind farm factory, with the promise of 800 new jobs. Edinburgh was also recently named best large European city for direct foreign investment.

The city’s tourism sector seems strong than ever, with Edinburgh retaining its place as the UK’s second top destination after London, bolstered by the success of events like the Fringe, which broke all of its box office records last year.

Yet the city is peppered with gap sites and derelict buildings and work is taking place on only a handful of development sites.

Major projects like the overhaul of the St James Centre, a new commercial development at Haymarket, the Caltongate development next to Waverley Station, the transformation of the site of the Cowgate fire a decade ago and an overhaul of the south side of St Andrew Square are still to get underway.

The council’s own infrastructure projects also provide several headaches, including what to do about the embarrassment of its flagship sports centre, Meadowbank, being in a run-down state for Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games, and the pressing need for a full-scale overhaul of the King’s Theatre.

Even the council’s hopes of attracting major hotel developers to the city have failed to lure in the world-class brands, leaving prestigious buildings like the former Royal High School on Calton Hill and the old Donaldson’s Deaf School lying empty and sliding into decline.

It is budget hotel operators that are instead being lured into Princes Street, along with retailers like Primark, despite hopes that huge chunks of the thoroughfare would be bulldozed to make way for prestigious new developments. At least there is sign of life at one site opposite the Balmoral Hotel.

Bigger challenges for the council are also looming on the horizon over how to kick-start the regeneration of the waterfront, despite Leith being designated a new enterprise area and a drive from landowner Forth Ports to concentrate its efforts on renewable energy in the docks in future, as well as a bid to establish a new international business gateway district near Edinburgh Airport.

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