Edinburgh is booming – and the city’s historic buildings are reaping the benefit, says Donald Anderson
Franklin Pierce Adams famously said: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.” That can certainly be true when it comes to Edinburgh’s recent successes. Many people feel that things were far better in the 50s and 60s – those “good old days”. Of course, in those “good old days” the city was plagued by slums and the city centre population reportedly fell to around 2,000.
These days Edinburgh’s economic success is a matter of public record. The strongest city economy in the UK outside London and supporting a quality of life that is second to none. Not all the benefits of such success get noticed though. Edinburgh has around ten percent of the Scottish population and has the Old and New Town World Heritage Site with a plethora of listed buildings.
Historic Scotland maintains the Buildings At Risk Register, an invaluable guide to the condition of listed and historic buildings throughout the land. There are only 73 buildings on the register in Edinburgh. That’s a mere three per cent of the Scottish total. What’s more there are almost no buildings left on the “At Risk” register in the city centre, with practically all under restoration or in the planning process.
Indeed, the only significant building in the city centre without plans under consideration is the Tron Kirk. The Tron is now being worked on and is occupied by the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, so I think we can be optimistic about the prospects of rapid action there.
It’s an extraordinary achievement. The Scottish Borders is a wonderful place with a population of just over a fifth of Edinburgh. It has 157 buildings “at risk”, more than double the number of Edinburgh. So, what’s brought about this amazing achievement? Two words, economic success. Key developments in recent years have created an environment in which the city’s buildings are probably in better condition than they have ever been.
CALA Homes probably isn’t anyone’s idea of a heritage “hero”, but it should be. Not only did CALA maintain the stunning Donaldson’s building during the longest economic downturn in modern history. It secured its restoration through a partnership with a specialist heritage housing developer, building much needed new homes in the process. At Craighouse, despite the controversy, an array of valuable listed buildings are being saved and restored.
In the World Heritage Site, Gleneagles is currently saving and restoring the former Bank of Scotland Building in St Andrew Square. The Advocates Close development has saved and brought back into good use many important historic buildings and transformed the public realm there.
Of course, we can’t simply stick our feet up and consider the job done. All buildings deteriorate over time unless they are maintained. Bits fall off tall buildings every day somewhere in the world. It is a constant battle to make sure that Edinburgh’s built heritage is maintained and improved. But in Edinburgh we are probably doing as well as anywhere.
Spreading economic success can help tackle such issues in the rest of the city and beyond. The Scottish Borders now has a new development agency that certainly has plenty to get its teeth into, but Edinburgh shows that economic success delivers heritage successes too. That’s a mighty silver lining from creating the strongest city economy in the UK.
Donald Anderson is director of Playfair Scotland