Iain Gray: East is east and west is best – a tale of two cities

Glasgow has fared better than Edinburgh, says Iain Gray
Glasgow has fared better than Edinburgh, says Iain Gray
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While Edinburgh has atrophied under economic pressure and a lack of leadership it’s Glasgow that flourishes, writes Iain Gray

Edinburgh born and bred, I will love the city until the day I die. But I live outside Edinburgh now, and when I do return it feels like a disaster area. My heart sinks, where once it would have soared.

There are the tram works of course, but that is not all. The streets feel dirtier, the litter seems worse. Landmarks like the Odeon in Clerk Street lie empty, as do many office blocks, what seems like half the shops in Princes Street and once-renowned restaurants like the Atrium. Events like the Christmas market have grown but grown tired and tacky. At the heart of the city there is a giant gap site, like the “holes in the ground” for which the city was famous thirty years ago. This is a crisis not of construction, but of confidence.

Ten years ago Edinburgh was the fastest growing economy in Europe. It buzzed with inspiration in the arts, finance and sciences. A new Parliament, the best universities, the most tourists, the biggest festivals, the newest schools, the most modern hospital. Global companies located in Edinburgh Park, and one of the biggest banks in the world was building its global corporate headquarters right here. Our airport opened direct routes to the world, which seemed to be at our feet.

Building on that dynamic optimism, the then Scottish Executive planned a rail link to Edinburgh Airport and supported the council’s scheme for a modern tram network. The rail link would embed Edinburgh Airport at the heart of our railways, in a vision of the whole of Scotland directly connected to the world, a modern European capital city with first class public transport its economic, cultural and scientific powerhouse.

Now that dynamism has drained away, and it hurts me to say it, but you must look to Glasgow for drive, determination and direction.

That city is seizing the opportunity of the Commonwealth Games to raise their own game. The M74 is complete. A total of £1 billion from stock transfer has been invested in housing. Kelvingrove museum has been refurbished and the new Riverside Museum is a triumph. Strathclyde University’s Technology Centre pushes the city to the frontline of technological challenges, while Glasgow’s colleges have combined into the biggest further education facility in Scotland. The new Southern General hospital is underway and every secondary school in the city has been rebuilt or refurbished. Venues like the Hydro Arena rise on the back of the Games and will confirm Glasgow as the concert and event capital of Scotland. Glasgow’s airport link was cancelled, but alternatives are under discussion, and new airlinks are still starting up. No trams, but the Glasgow subway is to be refurbished and modernised.

This optimism is serving the city well, and many recent jobs announcements even in traditionally Edinburgh strengths like finance have been in Glasgow, not least 600 jobs with Barclays bank. In energy, both Iberdrola and SSE chose Glasgow for their renewables HQ in Scotland. Last year Glasgow was the only major UK city where unemployment actually fell.

In this tale of two cities, it would seem that it is the best of times in Glasgow, the worst of times in Edinburgh. That has not happened by accident. In 2007 the incoming SNP government moved quickly to cancel the Edinburgh airport rail link and the trams project. This was a calculated vote of no confidence in our capital city. Although the trams project survived, saved by an independent report which showed clearly that the project was at that point in good shape, SNP ministers abandoned it to the new SNP/Lib Dem Edinburgh city Council. This coalition of the unwilling and the incompetent signed the fateful contract which has reduced what could have been a symbol of the city’s can-do confidence to a catalyst for chaos. It was not just the trams, either. Plans to rebuild schools like Boroughmuir and Portobello ground to a halt. Edinburgh’s own Commonwealth stadium was left to rot by an administration which could not make up its mind what to do from one day to the next. Developments at the Waterfront, Caltongate and Haymarket have been allowed to drift into limbo. The deadening hand of the city SNP reached back before 2007 too. They helped defeat stock transfer in Edinburgh and denied the city’s housing hundreds of millions of pounds of investment.

In 2008 the banking crisis hit, and the council cannot be blamed for that. But the City’s previous leaders like Labour’s Donald Anderson would not have sat back while confidence and jobs haemorrhaged away. There would have been a recovery strategy, building on still successful insurance and fund management sectors, designed to re-establish Edinburgh’s reputation as a key financial centre.

Of course this is not black and white. Glasgow suffers a corrosive concentration of deprivation. The new Museum of Scotland is superb, and Edinburgh was the beneficiary of recent announcements on the Green Investment Bank and Gamesa manufacturing jobs. But my city undeniably feels tired and Glasgow is undoubtedly buzzing. The quality of municipal leadership really does matter. Edinburgh must look west and remind itself of what, focussed and determined political leadership with a purpose can do. Glasgow should look east and ask itself if it really wants an SNP administration whose putative leader admits she has no ideas for the city and whose colleagues in Edinburgh have been asleep at the wheel for the past five years.

Iain Gray is Labour MSP for East Lothian