Brian Ferguson: Royal mile plan for Edinburgh

Edinburgh has an action plan for the historic Royal Mile. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh has an action plan for the historic Royal Mile. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE timing was, of course, sheer coincidence, but the publication of a long-awaited action plan for the Royal Mile felt like a firm riposte to a certain Edinburgh University academic.

My urge to leap to the defence of Edinburgh’s city fathers as their stewardship of Scotland’s capital was ripped apart by Professor Richard Williams made me wonder if I was ill, because ten years of writing about Edinburgh’s efforts to introduce congestion charging and trams, as well as covering a string of ill-conceived major developments, have left me as cynical about the city as anyone.

But leaving aside suspicions that Prof Williams’s article for Foreign Policy magazine was a barely-disguised anti-independence diatribe, many of his assertions struck me as just plain wrong. Headline-grabbing phrases like “weird urban malaise”, “abject decline” and “curious paralysis” didn’t ring true for me as someone who had spent the last two decades living in Edinburgh.

There is plenty to contradict the assertion that there is a “remarkable absence of new construction” in the city –Princes Street, Morrison Street and the Cowgate being three notable examples.

Some critics would have you believe nothing much has changed in Edinburgh since the mid-1960s. Apart from decay and decline, of course. What nonsense. The Royal Mile, long one of my favourite parts of the city, is as good a place as any to look for evidence of Edinburgh’s progress – or lack of. The advent of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 is as useful a recent starting point as any.

Apart from the multi award-winning Holyrood HQ itself – one of many new buildings curiously overlooked by Prof Williams – the bottom section of the Royal Mile has also seen the opening of the Queen’s Gallery at Holyrood Palace. The widely-acclaimed new homes for the Scottish Poetry Library and the Scottish Storytelling Centre have both opened since then.

The corner of the Lawnmarket and George IV Bridge has been transformed from one of the city’s worst eyesore buildings into one housing the first hotel to be opened anywhere by Italian fashion chain Missoni. The nearby Scotch Whisky Experience on Castlehill is a far cry from the attraction which opened in 1988, with a host of improvements in recent years. As for Edinburgh Castle, anyone fortunate enough to attend an event at the esplanade could not fail to be impressed at the difference new stands and facilities have made.

The city council was making much last week of the criticism it faced when it first considered closing off part of the High Street during August in the mid-1990s. It is virtually now impossible to imagine a time when traffic will again run all the way down the middle of the Royal Mile during August.

One of the most intriguing proposals in the new Royal Mile action plan, which Edinburgh World Heritage is in the early stages of pursuing, is a revival of the many neglected, run-down and downright intimidating closes and alleyways tucked off the Royal Mile. There are seemingly 74 of these in total with a dozen planned to be targeted initially for improvement.

In fact, a wander down some of these closes provides further evidence of the kind of developments that won plaudits at the time, but are now largely unheralded.

Norrie Rowan’s complex at The Caves, the Mary King’s Close attraction and the various developments architect Richard Murphy worked on between the Royal Mile and the Cowgate are but three examples.

It would be foolish in the extreme to claim all has been rosy in the Royal Mile garden in recent years. The botched Caltongate scheme, built around a five-star hotel model, was mishandled by its developer and rashly encouraged by the city council when there were obvious signs that it would go down badly in heritage circles at home and abroad.

The notorious growth of “tartan tat” shops over the last decade has appeared unstoppable, despite regular declarations of intent from senior councillors, who frankly appear unable to control what shop owners want to sell.

There is little doubt that action is long overdue to tackle congestion and the roads and pavements in the very areas targeted in the new action plan.

But it is worth underlining that each of the three headaches above appears to be a direct result of the huge tourism boom Edinburgh has enjoyed over the last decade or so. So much for stagnation.