Graham Birse: Edinburgh has good reason to be optimistic about 2012

Predicting the future is a dodgy business. Things have a funny way of turning out differently. Yet it is important – in life, in business – to set out on a course of action, to say what you are going to do, and do it. And when events blow you off course, set a new course, and start again.

Every so often economic and social cycles shift in a seismic way and we are clearly living through such times. But as we look forward into 2012, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about Edinburgh’s position and its prospects – provided we recognise what we need to do to promote and develop ourselves and our city.

Edinburgh has made amazing progress over the past decade. Our airport is top ten in its class in Europe; our festivals a global success envied and copied by competitors around the world; our hotels lead global rankings for occupancy and revenue; our great companies, like Standard Life, continue to impress customers and shareholders; our universities, like Edinburgh Napier, attract investment and top league tables for all-important “graduate employability”; our “quality of life” is regularly evaluated as amongst the best in Europe; and global investors, such as Mitsubishi, have announced major investments and the creation of high-value jobs in the city. Major projects, like the £50 million renewal of the National Museum of Scotland have given us all a lift and a sense of pride, as well as boosting our all-important tourism industry.

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But we need to ask ourselves why our retail ranking is still way below its potential. We’ve recently slipped down the European league table as an investment location, the marketing budgets available to our competitor cities eclipse our own, and the prolonged and agonising dispute (now thankfully resolved) around our tram project has damaged both our reputation- and our confidence.

And then there are the social statistics. According to the Centre for Cities, Edinburgh is 57 in a basket of 63 UK towns and cities for levels of inequality. And, most shameful of all, our state school leavers have among the poorest employment prospects of any local authority area in Scotland.

Those young people desperately need our support. For the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, this means introducing a culture in favour of development – having the political backbone to face down self-styled “community activists” who have the knowledge and the motivation to hijack the planning process and prevent construction from creating opportunities and jobs.

In May, we will elect a new intake of councillors to represent us and our city. The current electoral system makes it more likely than not that a new administration will be formed from a coalition of parties. We are in for an intense spell of electioneering and grandstanding – that’s understood. But when the votes are counted and the political deals done, Edinburgh requires strong and steady leadership to see it through. There are deep reserves of goodwill to be mined by our politicians, but the people of Edinburgh will not forgive a new administration if it fails to pick up the leadership challenge or behaves like an opposition in power.

In 2012, there are opportunities to be grabbed for Edinburgh. We should go all out to win the Green Investment Bank headquarters for the city – and in so doing develop the potential of Leith to become the renewable energy hub of the UK and Europe. We should anticipate the opening of the tram line in 2014 and the £850m redevelopment of the St James Centre as an opportunity to completely refresh the Princes Street retail and leisure experience, developing its full potential as the most elegant city thoroughfare in Europe.

And we should plan ahead. The arrival at Edinburgh Zoo of our new best pals Tian Tian and Yang Guang is only the beginning of a relationship with China that has the potential to unlock cultural, trade and education links with the world’s fastest-growing economy that will bring us manifest benefits for years to come. We need to decide now how we intend to develop those opportunities and who is leading them.

In 18 months, the Commonwealth Games comes to Glasgow, bringing an expected £4 billion boost to that city’s economy. What will Edinburgh’s approach be to the Games and developing fully the contribution we might expect from it?

At Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, we’re proud of our city and proud of our members. In its 225-year history our organisation has witnessed great economic events.

We are ready to play our part in developing Edinburgh to its full potential – helping to cement the partnerships and the unity that is called for in these times. In our view, Scotland’s recovery depends upon it.

* Graham Birse is policy director at Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce