Edinburgh needs a new city charter to put its residents at the heart of future plans – Joanna Mowat

The breathing space created by the absence of vast numbers of tourists who normally come for the Festival should be used to develop a new ‘Charter of Edinburgh’, setting out how to ensure it remains a place where people actually live, writes councillor Joanna Mowat.
Edinburgh's Royal Mile packed with performers and onlookers during last year's Festival (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Edinburgh's Royal Mile packed with performers and onlookers during last year's Festival (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Edinburgh's Royal Mile packed with performers and onlookers during last year's Festival (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

This time last year the High Street paradox in Edinburgh was that in response to overcrowded streets – so dangerous the city council’s head of place was concerned that someone might step off the pavement and get killed – parts of this historic road had been closed to traffic and businesses of all stripes were recording reductions in sales of up to 40 per cent.

The number of visitors to the city had reached a tipping point and the pages of newspapers and screens of social media were full of concerns about overtourism; residents on some streets couldn’t catch a bus to get to the shops nor could the shops get to them as supermarkets suspended deliveries to some areas because of overcrowding.

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As a local councillor, my phone didn’t stop ringing and my inbox overflowed. Hot on the heels of the Festival crowds came ‘Spacedeck’ as Princes Street Gardens were scaffolded and planked over by a huge structure to accommodate the Christmas market. Local businesses were reporting that pop-ups supposedly needed to service the increased visitor numbers were damaging the bottom line of rate-paying businesses.

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Something was very wrong. The city had managed to attract so many visitors that to accommodate them residents had been pushed out of the city centre and long-established businesses were suffering rather than benefitting. Surely a sign of a market severely out of kilter.

Be careful what you wish for, they say. Instead of hordes of visitors, we have an empty city which is heartbreaking. We know from many surveys that “walking around and looking” is the highest-scoring visitor activity and the beauty of the city, her setting, green open spaces and views to hill and sea have never been set off better than by the empty streets.

The lack of traffic has also exposed the shocking state of roads. That silence and static beauty comes at a price which has only begun to be counted in a city where significant numbers of jobs are based in the hospitality and tourism sectors and whose international reputation has been shaped by the Festivals.

The city now stands at a crossroads and must choose its future, especially for how summer is managed. Having called for better management of our public spaces for a number of years, I think now is the moment to bring not only the city and Festivals but civic groups together to propose a new Charter for Edinburgh to decide how events are hosted, what good practice looks like, and how to respect and protect Scotland’s capital and build on its reputation as a Festival city while also re-aligning this with a focus on sustainability – environmental, economic and in terms of preserving our heritage – so that the problems of the recent past are designed out of the future.

Preserving a living city centre must stand at the core of any future plans – not only to respect the historic environment which affords us our World Heritage status but also because it became painfully apparent during lockdown that, devoid of tourists and students, the residential population in parts of the city centre is sparse.

Whatever changes are made to the city in the future must recognise that nurturing a residential population is fundamental. For those who say that this is akin to clutching a nest of vipers to your bosom because they have temerity to point out their existence and raise concerns, my riposte, as one of their elected representatives, is effective management of activity has been neglected. Had this been in place, life would have been easier for everyone.

Given the pressures on the public spaces the city has seen in the past, it should be simple to agree that effective management is a prerequisite for the future and then move speedily on to what this looks like, what we need to do to agree that and how it will be enforced. The council has an outstanding commitment to develop a public spaces manifesto which should form the foundation for this management.

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It is imperative that the Festivals and wider business community are involved so the city centre works for everyone, all year round.

Given statements from all the Festivals and the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG) that next year, when events return, things will be different, there is an opportunity to develop a Charter for Edinburgh about how we use the public space and how we expect it to be managed.

Any previous attempts to look at this have been buried under the inexorable cycle of putting on Festivals, recovery and starting the process again, and there hasn’t been the time, head space or, from the Festivals’ point of view, necessity to prioritise this.

Now that we are all in a place where not to get behind this looks like the stupid thing to do, what could stop it from happening?

The current administration in the council does not have a good track record on creating spaces where debate can happen – as weakness in leadership tends to mean those in charge cannot stomach a challenge or move towards compromise.

Combined with a political climate of increasing toxicity, Edinburgh has to be clear that we expect this city to find a way forward that resolves the issues of the past and builds a strong foundation for the future which has a living city centre at its heart.

Joanna Mowat is a Scottish Conservative councillor for Edinburgh’s City Centre ward.

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