The lockdowns have impacted our city centre far more than local neighbourhood areas due to the combination of lack of office workers and tourists as well as Edinburgh residents shopping locally where possible.
This has put huge strain on the business community in the city centre and I am full of admiration for the way in which adversity has been faced head on. The reality of a year in which most hospitality and retailers have been closed for 8 months is unimaginable to predict or have a contingency plan for. Yes, there have been casualties of the last year and I fear we may see a few more in the months to come. However, these difficult times are hopefully now past, and the city centre can plan for a significant and positive period of both change and growth in the months and years ahead.
No city centre will escape the pandemic without change although Edinburgh had started this process well before March last year and is therefore ahead of the game. We will see new operators, new uses of buildings, revitalised public spaces, and of course new flagship world class developments. The next few years of the recovery are also years of opportunity for the city centre which is hugely exciting.
Hospitality and event businesses have felt the brunt of restrictions, many of which seem draconian and devoid of logic. Irrespective of politics, the differences north and south of the border are stark. Pictures last weekend of raves in Liverpool and capacity crowds at indoor sporting events in Sheffield compared with next to no activity in Scotland are frustrating for businesses. Crowded outside bar spaces packed on city streets throughout England compared to smaller spaces in Scotland each carry significant revenue discrepancies.
Tom Kitchen, one of our city’s most highly respected restaurateurs, articulated the problem and frustrations better than most. Our hospitality industry needs movement and soon or many outlets will not recover.
Yes, we have to be cautious with our recovery from the pandemic, but we also need to re-open at some point. Reckless and unregulated no, sensible, well managed and proportionate yes. Essential Edinburgh has worked closely and effectively with the City of Edinburgh Council to open up outside spaces in the city centre and the Council’s can-do attitude has been very welcome. This past week these spaces have been well used even with some poor weather and will hopefully bear more fruit as we head towards summer.
As normal, August will be a crucial month for the city centre. It will, of course, be very different for many reasons and we will all need to be flexible in our approach as to what may or may not be possible. I have been heartened by recent announcements by our Festivals about what may be deliverable. Similar to the hospitality industry, event organisers need some planning security and some certainty.
Everyone realises that public health must come first but announcements about social distancing relaxing are imperative as at two meters it is both impractical and commercially unviable for operators. We are now in May and without decisions on this soon, the clock will simply run down on the promoter's ability to book acts and set up temporary venues. Let us hope beyond hope that we will see a smaller but no less vibrant Festival season this year.