The last few weeks have seen a crescendo in the debate on “over-tourism” in Edinburgh culminating in the creation of a campaign group to fight against it. As is often the case the issue is far more complex than it might seem. But the one obvious truth is that much of the anger is rightly aimed at those in charge in the City Chambers.
The reason is the Janus-like attempts by the SNP/Labour council to look both ways on our tourist economy. The council leader uses Twitter to champion the effect the new Dunard Concert Hall might have in bringing yet more tourism to the city centre. Meanwhile they reply to the leftist demands of campaigners with talk about council intervention in housing, talking shops on poverty and more and higher taxes on the perceived “evils”. I understand that “popular” policies can be conflicting, but you don’t persuade people to your cause by giving different messages to different audiences. The public quickly spot what you are telling others – hence the anger.
Edinburgh’s economy is growing and our unemployment rate is miniscule – effectively full employment. This is largely due to the private sector, not the council, and will be bolstered by the St James and Gleneagles developments as well as the new Johnnie Walker Centre which will fill the hole left by Frasers at the West End.
It’s obvious that tourism and retail play a large part in providing the jobs that make the city more prosperous. We need them. The transformation of the Waverley Market (opposed by the SNP planning convener) and the National Galleries expansion (marred by poor council communications) will also add to the city centre’s bright future.
But what about the bits for which the council is directly responsible? On basic implementation the maintenance of the streets let it all down and Rose Street remains neglected while we await yet another consultation. Planning policy is out of date and the council’s economic development department has been reduced to little more than “a desk and a phone”. On regulation, the campaigners clamour to restrict AirBnB (other short-term lets platforms exist) yet we only sparingly use the planning powers already available to regulate this as a change of use.
It’s a hallmark of this SNP-led council to deflect by saying they would solve the problem if only they had more powers while failing to concentrate on day-to-day delivery within the powers available. Sound familiar?
We all need to be more realistic and seek the good rather than what is perfect from each individual standpoint. My City Centre Ward Conservative colleague Joanna Mowat has sensibly called in this newspaper for some compromise to address the conflicting aspirations of tourism and residents. To do that you have to start by recognising the differences and bring the competing views together. We will never get consensus with the council leader’s approach of continuing to tell each side separately what it wants to hear.
Finally, we can only build faith in the council to have the solutions if it sorts the basics on policy, enforcement and basic service delivery for which it is directly responsible. That would need a massive change of direction away from the virtue signalling student politics we are subject to at present in the City Chambers. It is a cause we Conservatives will continue to champion.
Cllr Iain Whyte is the Conservative group leader at Edinburgh City Council