In the 1980s, Edinburgh was a dump. These were the ‘Trainspotting’ years. It still had the castle, but the city was devastated by mass unemployment which then ran at 13 per cent.
Of course, the worst pain was felt in the big peripheral schemes where unemployment ran at over 20 per cent. The figure in Craigmillar went above 25 per cent, with more than half of those unemployed for more than a year. There were two international flights from Edinburgh Airport – to Dublin and Amsterdam – and the city was famous for its ‘holes in the ground’ and had a reputation as a city where nothing happened. The population of the city was falling.
Franklin Pierce Adams famously said that, “nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory”. I have a good memory but looking back at times I don’t remember well, we should appreciate just how trying they were for Edinburgh’s now glorious city centre. In the 1940s, councillors struggled with a High Street area where the houses had been “gradually allowed to sink into decay” and where many were “closed and windowless”. Princes Street at the time was regarded by many as “irremediable”. In the 1950s, there was the spectacle of the “penny tenement” in Beaumont Place where residents miraculously escaped death when the tenement actually collapsed with them in it. During that decade, the population of the Old Town was estimated to have fallen to a historic low of 2,000.
The 1960s saw some positive changes with a slum-clearance scheme, but the condition of the city centre did not improve dramatically. Thankfully, the most drastic of options for solving the urban decay were not enacted, but salvation for the city centre was still a long time coming. As a teenager in the 1970s, I joined a running club based in a close off St Mary’s Street. We changed in the first floor but couldn’t go higher because the building was basically collapsing, and the decline in the Old Town carried on well into the 1980s.
The key changes happened in 1980s, not with the election of a Labour Council in 1984 but with a “palace coup” organised by the then Lord Provost ‘Gentleman’ John McKay. This brought a more enlightened administration to the city chambers at the same time as Lothian Regional Council was run by increasingly smart politicians like the then youthful Finance Chair, Eric Milligan. There was another key change then too in which the city got “an accidental City Deal”. The Conservative Government created a 90 per cent repairs grant programme to which the city residents signed up to en masse, blowing the budget. That locked the Government and the city council into a programme that would run for more than 20 years and transform the city centre completely, as more than £380 million (probably between £700m and £1 billion in today’s prices) poured into tenemental properties across the city centre. One tenement with wooden beams cost £1m on its own.
The city’s economy was recovering too and, for the first time, a strategic approach was taken to developing the city’s long-standing tourism industry. The traditionally hostile relationship between the council and the private sector was mended and the council worked more closely with the private sector to attract investment. Business tourism was actively sought, and the council created the Edinburgh International Conference Centre in partnership with Scottish Enterprise. The EICC is a genuinely world-class facility in heart of the city centre. A new ‘Financial District’ was created in place of derelict railway sidings. Standard Life expanded but stayed in the city centre, creating an economic anchor that remains a key element in the vibrancy of the city centre to this day. Edinburgh created its famous Hogmanay and Christmas festivals alongside the summer ones, which secured a year-round tourism industry in a north European city without a ‘year-round climate’ – I tell tourists “the city’s air conditioned”.
And investment flowed. Private-sector success brought huge financial gains for Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK as taxes flowed to fund public spending. The jobs flowed too, and as a result unemployment in Craigmillar today is lower than it was in Morningside back in the 80s and 90s. Edinburgh became the strongest city economy in the UK outside London. A truly remarkable achievement.
The downturn from 2008 was the most serious blow the city has had in modern times, but it suffered less than other cities. Basically, the higher you rise in the good times, the higher you stay in a downturn. Many thousands of Edinburgh residents – who would have been unemployed if they lives in other cities – worked through the downturn. Economic success has improved the life-chances of every man, woman and child in the nation’s capital and for many beyond its boundaries.
Of course, there is controversy. In recent weeks we have seen that in spades.
I don’t believe anyone “hates” tourists. After all, we’re pretty much all tourists ourselves, and visitors find residents friendly (because we are). There is a huge issue with rented properties in the city centre, but controls are coming to tackle that.
But the city has not been “preserved in aspic” and thank goodness for that. Indeed, the most radical changes are in full view but unnoticed. Who’d have thought you could build an extension to the castle facing Princes Street and nobody would notice or care, but we did.
Our heritage lobby is part of that success. Leaving aside the planning debates of which we are all familiar, Edinburgh World Heritage (EWHT) has done amazing work in the city centre. High Street closes that were derelict and run down have been renewed by council developments like Advocates Close, but also by a brilliant and systematic programme of environmental improvements carried out by EWHT. It has also sensitively removed the scourge of graffiti from around the city centre. Beat that Paris and Rome!
Edinburgh is a success not just because of its history, but because of modern planning. The truth is that the historic core of the city is better preserved and better protected than ever before and it is thriving. If you want to find historic buildings under threat, you’re more likely to find them in suburban locations like the Inch where the wonderful Inch House is falling down, rather than in the city centre.
The people of the city are thriving too, and far from “hating tourists” people like their city and their neighbourhoods more than ever as tourism and economic development have grown. In the city centre, 96 per cent of residents are happy with the city and 92 per cent are happy with their neighbourhood – that’s a full eight points higher than the area I live in, and that’s better than ever as well.
So, let’s celebrate that success. I know it’s not the Edinburgh way, but the Edinburgh Evening News pointed out recently, this is probably the best city in the world.
I’m all for debate, but let’s stop the dog-whistle outrage. And in the city that helped create the Age of Enlightenment and the modern world, let’s have a healthy debate about what’s been achieved and what still needs to be done.
Edinburgh became a great city again through good planning, hard work and economic success. Let’s make it even better.
Donald Anderson is director of Playfair Scotland