Donald Anderson: A new Golden Age for Edinburgh must include everyone

The ideas of economist Adam Smith, whose statue is given pride of place on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, helped shape the modern world (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
The ideas of economist Adam Smith, whose statue is given pride of place on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, helped shape the modern world (Picture: Phil Wilkinson)
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The capital has never had it so good but there is a chance to make life better for everyone, says Donald Anderson.

It is worth remembering how far we have come as Edinburgh council invites the public to contribute to its ‘2050 Edinburgh City Vision’ project. When I cast my mind back to the mid 1980s I remember an Edinburgh beset with the huge upheaval caused by mass unemployment, and with a reputation as a city with a small town provincial mentality.

Back then Edinburgh was infamous as somewhere where nothing happened. The holes in the ground weren’t potholes, they were city centre sites devoid of activity and where there seemed no prospect of development. Edinburgh Airport had only two international routes in those days – Dublin and Amsterdam.

The music was good in the early 80s – I certainly remember that well – but Edinburgh was like many other UK cities of that time. It was a dull and depressing place with a declining population and no great prospects of improvement.

This in a city that helped shape the modern world – from economics to philosophy, through to the sciences and medicine. In its ‘Golden Age’, Edinburgh was an international and cosmopolitan city. However while the intellectual life of the city blossomed, for ordinary residents life was short and hard in cramped, disease-ridden tenements. It was a Golden Age for the city, but not for all its people.

Former President Barack Obama famously said during the US election as saying: “If you had to choose any time in the course of human history to be alive, you’d choose this one.” He was talking about America, but you could make exactly the same claim for Edinburgh – and Scotland – today. Firstly, let’s be clear there are lots of challenges. The world has been through the longest economic downturn in modern history. Wages have been squeezed and, on the back of public spending reductions, benefits have been squeezed too.

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That said, we have much to be positive about. On a whole range on indicators, life in the city is getting better. Unemployment in Edinburgh is low, despite the fall from grace of our most powerful financial institutions. We’ve seen major improvements in our peripheral schemes too, traditionally where most of our poorest live. I live in south Edinburgh which is unrecognisable from the lows of the 1980s.

And Leith is fashionable and finally in recovery mode, becoming a major hub for investment and, hopefully, trams as well.

Other indicators shine too. Crime is always a high political priority, and figures are about the lowest in history. Edinburgh also has the lowest crime of any major Scottish city and has experienced the largest fall anywhere in Scotland in the last year. This despite the chaos of Police Scotland.

Unemployment is down and, at the same time, the number of homeless presentations in the city has fallen by nearly half in a decade with about 2,000 fewer families facing homelessness each year. We also have some of the most innovative ways of tackling homelessness bearing fruit with both the Big Issue and latterly the fantastic Social Bite showing how Edinburgh can lead the way in radical and effective new ways to tackle long-standing social issues.

Edinburgh is now widely acknowledged as one best places to live in the world. Almost every week there’s a survey that shows how lucky we are in having a quality of life and environment that excels.

And the city is a model of conservation with a well-preserved city centre and a population increasing over the years; it’s holding up well despite the vagaries of Airbnb – hopefully to be tackled soon to bring

more stability back to communities.

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So looking forward, what should be the vision for 2050? Well the world will be a very different place of course. But surely the key task will be to make the city even better for all its people. A focus on keeping the economy and employment growth strong is the best way to ensure that our young people get the best chance of a job and a better one as their career develops. Every major investment and improvement in the city economy helps improve the life chances for that youngster in a peripheral scheme to get their first foot on the job ladder to transform their lives and life chances.

As someone with experience of working in the public and private sectors, I learned early that you need to create wealth in order to distribute it.

The council’s plans include some very ambitious objectives: a regenerated waterfront; making the city the ‘data capital of Europe’ through the recently agreed city deal; building new homes to the west and south east of the city; and transforming our city centre.

Add to that the business hub being formed in the west of the city at the ‘International Business Gateway’ with one of the most dynamic airports in Europe and the prospects for jobs-driven prosperity look good for Edinburgh looking forward to 2050.

Maximising the creation of jobs will further improve the UK’s strongest city economy outside London and one of the best cities in the world. Edinburgh was a beacon for civilisation before and can be again. This is unquestionably the best time to live in Edinburgh and, with the right strategies, the generation coming through will see a new Golden Age of prosperity by 2050. And this time around it will be a Golden Age for all the people, as well as for our great, great city.

Donald Anderson is the former leader of Edinburgh City Council