Why ‘boatels’ on Edinburgh’s Union Canal are a mistake – Sarah Boyack

Primary school pupils go for a paddle on the Union Canal, an idyllic waterway that runs from Edinburgh to Falkirk (Picture: Malcolm McCurrach)
Primary school pupils go for a paddle on the Union Canal, an idyllic waterway that runs from Edinburgh to Falkirk (Picture: Malcolm McCurrach)
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Allowing floating hotels in Edinburgh suggests the Union Canal is being treated as a commodity to be ruthlessly exploited, rather than a valued natural environment, writes Sarah Boyack

The recent Scottish Government decision to overturn Edinburgh City Council’s rejection of floating hotels, or boatels, has caused quite a stir and, rightly, raised the hackles of a growing number of community groups.

The plans for five boats to be moored on the Union Canal outside Boroughmuir High School were roundly rejected by councillors last year, who had anticipated another vision for the area, one that included full community participation and regular use of the waterway by school pupils. The decision now means that the school’s access to the canal side will be blocked.

It must have been a crushing blow to the council, already reeling from criticism over the Christmas events planning fiasco. Despite over 300 objections lodged regarding the boatels proposal, the Scottish Government stands by its decision.

READ MORE: Scottish Government overturns refusal of planning permission for Union Canal ‘boatels’

READ MORE: Canals can be part of Scotland’s transport network once again – leader comment

The appeals decision notice gave reasons for granting permission for the boatels to be moored at Fountainbridge: they will be in an urban area; good city centre access; opportunities for economic development.

But it is not yet clear just how much value boatels will add to Fountainbridge or Edinburgh at large. As tourism lets, boatel occupiers won’t contribute towards the city’s hard-pressed services until the tourist levy is in place, and don’t experience the scrutiny afforded to residential lets.

A Fountain for Fountainbridge

Apparently, the boatel decision meets the Scottish Government’s plans for the development of our canals but rides roughshod over local considerations, placing commerce over community, economics over environment.

Clearly there is a disconnect between the Government’s broader plans to enhance and develop tourism that takes focus away from our crowded tourist centres, and the need to manage residential expectations. A cynic may say that we are not learning to manage tourism more effectively, but taking existing poor strategies and simply pushing them onto the waterways.

As hotels spring up all over the city, community groups work tirelessly to preserve what is left of local charm. Fountainbridge, the scene of this particular controversy, has already seen several efforts by residents to reinstate the character of the community.

A Fountain for Fountainbridge is one such endeavour that seeks to incorporate a community-driven heritage idea into the council’s development plans for the area. Recognising the value to the local community, it is fully supported by the Fountainbridge Canalside Initiative (FCI), one of the key groups opposing the boatels, and an indication of the strength of feeling residents have for their city.

Waterway bottlenecks

As protest groups become more vocal in their objections to the Disneyfication of Edinburgh, FCI’s objections make for some sober reflection. In addition to school access, anti-social behaviour, noise, drinking and smoking of boatel occupants were considered potential sources of disturbance to residents. A problem for the police, said the Government.

Perplexingly, while the Government appears to believe that the types of boatel residents can be controlled under the existing plans, their behaviour cannot.

Essentially, little distinction is being made between regulations that govern the urban built environment and the fragile biodiversity of the canal, one that residents would respect and value as part of their home. Can the same be said of short-term boatel occupants? And with this precedent set, how much power does the council have to deter future bottlenecking of our waterways?

Party boats are not the answer to Edinburgh’s congested tourism. The canal environment is a privilege to enjoy, not a commodity to be ruthlessly exploited.

As Ishbel McFarlane of the FCI bluntly stated, “Public spaces should be allowed to be enjoyed for their own merits without there always having to be recourse to commercial gain.”

If we have learned anything these past few months, it’s that tourism must be carefully conducted and skilfully executed, and appropriate planning is a vital part of that.

If we continue to sell our city – and its surroundings – to the highest bidders, then we’re simply laying the groundwork for a fresh raft of tourism controversies rather than welcoming the benefits visitors bring to our fantastic city.

Sarah Boyack is a Labour MSP for Lothian