Edinburgh has two of the most important strategic development sites in the UK, writes David D Murray.
In a couple of weeks’ time, the world’s property industry gathers in Cannes for the Marché International des Professionnels d’Immobilier, or MIPIM for short. Investors and financial Institutions, developers, cities and public bodies, occupiers, architects and the like all gather, 26,000 of them, in the French Riviera town.
For Scotland, the opportunity is to present a welcoming face to the world to attract the investment we need in our infrastructure, housing, commercial property and hotels. This year the country’s presence is being led by Cabinet Secretary for the Economy and Finance Derek Mackay. Cities, investors and developers are all combined into one Scotland exhibition demonstrating, we must hope, that our opportunities are strategic and greater than the sum of our parts.
Scotland’s economic success for the long term will be determined by the choices we make now and every day. Talking, debating and arguing about our ideas is one thing. Doing is what actually delivers.
In a democracy, the doing part is always difficult because politicians and officials are accountable for what they do, the resources they spend and the changes they make. Acting with the long-term interest of the whole country is often difficult when confounded by the short-termism of the electoral cycle, by the vested interests of those who just wish everything to stay as it is now.
However, if we look to the longer-term challenges and opportunities facing the country right now, it is clear that what is mission critical is long-term strategic economic thinking matched by purposeful action to deliver it, urgently.
We know that demographic challenges mean that the share of the population of working age is set to decline. This partly explains why, across the political spectrum, there is now a broad consensus that attracting talent and people to live and work in Scotland is central to our future economic success.
There can be no doubt that the population of Scotland has not grown as quickly as in the south-east of the UK or indeed in the best-performing small advanced economies in the world. This needs to be remedied if we are to achieve our potential.
Not only can we not afford for a smaller and smaller proportion of the population to be working to support the older generations, we also need to think, front-foot, about how we want to see Scotland compete with the best, long term.
The fastest growing part of Scotland is, not surprisingly, the capital city and the surrounding region. Edinburgh is a vibrant centre for finance, science, technology, culture and the arts. It is a simply outstanding place to live in, raise children and work.
The combination of the cost of living, the quality of the place, education and environment all combine to make it a magnet for talent to rival any.
We need to gear up for growth which obviously means thinking long term about infrastructure, housing and jobs. A city population that is currently 500,000 people could rise to significantly more than that and, indeed, has to. As a place to work and be educated it needs to connect to the broader region surrounding it efficiently and sustainably.
In practical terms, this means taking decisions now and strategically about how we grow the city while preserving what makes it Edinburgh and therefore world class.
This requires strategic thought and action. A combination of landowners, developers, housebuilders and government in all its forms need to work in partnership and with purpose.
It is a very common complaint that the planning system is too slow. And, in truth, it really is.
I wouldn’t blame any individual, just call on government – at all levels – to resource up to ensure that the necessary diligence work is done exponentially better and faster than it is now. Otherwise the system glues up progress and holds back growth.
This is one of the policy challenges that government can control and put right. Thinking strategically, there is a growing consensus that Edinburgh has two of the most important strategic development sites in the UK in the west of Edinburgh and the full sweep of the waterfront.
To make the most of the opportunity, we need joined up and supportive thinking across all partners to unlock the potential it presents to the Scottish economy for high-quality homes, jobs, businesses and leisure.
At Murray Estates, we have been invested in development for 30 years and more. As a family business, we have worked hard to develop plans that could contribute to the sustainable future of the city and therefore the whole country.
The Garden District proposals have received widespread backing and are now with the Scottish Government for a decision, we hope soon. They could kickstart the transformation of the west of Edinburgh and beyond.
Exciting proposals are on the table to develop the economy around the fast-growing airport which has been a jewel in the crown of the economy as it has grown our connectivity to the rest of the world. Other proposals are being developed there and they all deserve support. Meanwhile, the area around Heriot Watt could become an integrated university and community quarter of high-quality living and amenity, while the whole waterfront has the potential to add a completely new space to the city environment as well.
All development needs thought and consideration to transport, education and other public services. The good news is that investment makes that a virtuous cycle of growth that will transform the sustainability of the whole city.
Now is not the time for narrow commercial self-interest or under-resourcing of the system to get in the way of long-term leadership and strategy.
If we fail to act now with purpose, then future generations will regard us as unambitious stewards of a city that deserves the best. Government matters, of course it does, but we all need to work together to create the world-class country and economy we want our children and grandchildren to inherit.
David D Murray is managing director of Murray Capital