Leith Walk's traders would survive Armageddon (but they could use a bit of help right now) – Stephen Jardine

The resilience of shops and businesses on Leith Walk is reason alone to support them in the coronavirus crisis, writes Stephen Jardine
Businesses on Leith Walk have been hit by the coronavirus lockdown and works associated with the tram extension (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)Businesses on Leith Walk have been hit by the coronavirus lockdown and works associated with the tram extension (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
Businesses on Leith Walk have been hit by the coronavirus lockdown and works associated with the tram extension (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)

Leith Walk is open for business. That might come as a surprise to anyone who has tried to visit in recent weeks but Edinburgh’s iconic thoroughfare is apparently ready and waiting to welcome customers. I know this because a sponsored post keeps popping up on my Twitter feed to tell me so. It is paid for by Edinburgh City Council and surely they must know what is going on less than a mile from their HQ?

But hang on, didn’t they set out to build a £375m tram project and ended up with a bill for nearly a billion pounds without any idea why? No one has ever been held responsible for that colossal bungle and the public inquiry launched six years ago and costing £11m shows no signs of reaching a conclusion.

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Since the work on Leith Walk is the next stage of the tram project, linking Newhaven to the city centre, perhaps trusting Edinburgh council on this isn’t a great idea? With that in mind, I set off this week to see the reality for myself. I’ve been here before. More than a decade ago, I walked the length of Leith Walk when the original tram works were being undertaken and wrote a column for the Evening News.

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Despite the disruption, it was an uplifting experience. Where else could you buy television sets and darts paraphernalia just across the road from baklava and specialist Chinese mushrooms? Back then the future actually looked potentially positive with the tram set to deliver new customers to the Leith Walk shops. But then the line was curtailed and the fiasco unfolded so a decade on, in the time of coronavirus and resumed tram works, is Leith Walk really open for business?

The backdrop to all this is grim. This week Marks & Spencer announced 7,000 redundancies following a 50 per cent drop in store sales as customers moved online during lockdown. Where does that leave small shops who rely on footfall?

I started at the foot of the walk with its jumble of cafes, bars and the kind of shops that would be able to sell you a piece of a meteorite once owned by Sylvester Stallone. Even on a weekday afternoon, most were open and had a steady flow of customers.

I crossed the street through the cacophony of roadworks to the Stead Place development site, still untouched but now with a new plan for its future out for consultation. Further up, the bike shop had a queue of customers outside while in the window of the Portuguese café a man approached the job of eating his pastel del nata with enthusiasm bordering on obscene.

A few places were shuttered including the television and darts shop but most were soldiering on with Pilrig Motors still offering its extensive sunglasses collection and the African boutique now displaying an exotic collection of face coverings in the window.

In the window of an empty charity shop nearby was a handwritten notice, “we’ll be back”. That sums up Leith Walk. Despite the best efforts of a pandemic and the endemic incompetence of Edinburgh City Council, the traders here just won’t give up. When Armageddon comes, Leith Walk will still be open for business. The retailers here are unstoppable and for that reason alone, they deserve our support.

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