Edinburgh’s Festival-clogged streets scarcely need more people to be attracted into town, to spend, spend, spend on tartan tea towels or a staggering stag night.
Yet a key aim of the developments in West Princes St Gardens being promoted by the Ross Development Trust is to boost footfall in the city centre.
The city’s former Lord Provost and new “culture chief”, Donald Wilson, has called for a greater geographical spread of events across the city, to ease the pressure on the city centre. So is Princes St Gardens, the best place to build an “international quality…self-sustaining attraction…which can operate 365 days a year…hosting a combination of large-and small-scale events”? Another new concert venue in nearby St.Andrew’s Square is part of the City Deal.
Norman Springford’s offer of £5m to enhance the gardens is welcome, of course. The local authority, abdicating civic responsibility, has allowed the Ross Bandstand to fall into disrepair, making it “not fit for use” and compromising “this prominent site”, as the Trust says.
An international competition to replace the Bandstand produced a winning design that reflected the popular vote organised by the local press.
The worry is that the tranquillity in the heart of the city that makes Princes St Gardens a loved public space could be sacrificed to feed ambitions to boost Edinburgh amongst “world cities”. If four million visitors a year is insufficient to sate the appetite, what would? Five million? Six million? Nobody has asked the citizens. The gardens should not be the locus for “events” 365 days a year.
Certainly the gardens could be improved. The winning design was preferable to some of the others. However it is premature to reach a view on the proposals until we see a planning application, which will not necessarily follow the winning design in every respect. Only then will important details like fencing around the new pavilion be open to scrutiny. The council is working with the Trust to promote development in the Gardens. This must not cloud the judgement of councillors on the planning committee when applications come forward.
Fundamental questions remain. Is this a creeping privatisation of common good land? Press reports have spoken of a lease agreement for part of the gardens. The Ross Development Trust is a non-profit body, but we do not know what kind of restrictions might be imposed on public access. Some £20m of corporate funding is being sought: what if a company offers a huge donation, but with strings attached, such as in relation to advertising space or several days’ reservation for corporate hospitality?
The bridge from King’s Stables Road is to be replaced to allow larger vehicles to enter the gardens: how large and how often? What will be the impact of a visitor centre built into the banks below Princes Street, with daily events and a rooftop viewing gallery?
The design competition was a good way to generate ideas, but should not pre-empt decisions. We need a debate about the future of this exceptional public space, which we own collectively.
Cliff Hague is an Emeritus Professor of Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University and the Chair of The Cockburn Association.