The body charged with protecting Edinburgh’s world heritage status has raised fears that a new tourism industry blueprint pledging to provide better protection for its historic environment and greater scrutiny of new developments will be “toothless” and nothing more than a “paper exercise.”
Edinburgh World Heritage is calling for a major rethink of how the city will take shape over the next ten years as it said the city had been blighted by “bland” and characterless”projects over the last decade.
It wants the city to prioritise “sustainably re-using and mending and properly maintaining the city’s built environment, warning that up to 40 per cent of listed buildings in the city centre are in need of repair due to a lack of regular maintenance, climate change or “simple neglect”.
However, it is concerned that the new tourism strategy could be approved without an action plan next year at a time when the council-funded Marketing Edinburgh agency is being wound up.
The new blueprint drawn up by the city council and the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group (ETAG), the main industry body in the city, includes an ambition to ensure “Edinburgh’s heritage is cherished and cared for as a fundamental aspect of the city’s character”. It also insists that any new tourism developments hold “contribute to the life of local people”.
However the charity, which was created in the wake of the city’s Old and New Towns bring granted world heritage status in 1995, says there is a “need to turn fine words into action” over a ten-year vision for the industry.
Professor James Garden, the newly-appointed chair of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “We now have a new draft tourism strategy for the city focused on managing growth responsibly versus simply driving growth.
“Once the strategy is finalised in the new year, we will need to turn fine words into action, with the council and industry partners, especially in areas such as ring-fencing some revenue from the tourist tax to help conserve the historic environment, and introducing a robust regulatory regime for Airbnb properties, of which there are now over 12,000 in the city.”
Speaking at the charity’s festive reception, Professor Garden said the city had a “mixed report card” when it came to new developments.
He added: “This subject generally arouses very strong feelings, due to the heady mix of politics, planning and capital finance involved in making these things happen.”
Adam Wilkinson, director of Edinburgh World Heritage, said: “While we applaud the sentiments expressed in the new strategy, there’s clearly a risk that, due to a lack of resources, this becomes just a paper exercise.
"So while it sounds good, more work needs to be done to ensure it becomes a catalyst for positive change. Other historic European cities, such as Florence, are actively investing in sustainable tourism initiatives.”
City council leader Adam McVey said: "I want to see everyone in our city share in our success. Tourism enriches our city’s cultural and arts scene and sustains tens of thousands of jobs.
“Whether you live or work in the city centre or not, tourism affects all of us in Edinburgh. All city partners need to acknowledge and work to address the pressures tourism can have on our residents and, over the next 10 years, our plan aims to do just that.
“It’s really encouraging that Edinburgh World Heritage is so behind ETAG’s new strategy for the city because it puts residents first, promotes a more sustainable approach to managing tourism and echoes much of the feedback we’ve received from local communities.
"Alongside our own ambitions for greater powers over short-term lets and the UK’s first visitor levy, the strategy proposes a fairer balance between tourism benefits and impacts."
A spokesman for the Edinburgh Tourism Action Group said: "Once the new tourism strategy is finalised the strategy implementation group and strategy partners will consider how best to work collectively to deliver the strategy.
"As part of this strategy, partners will work together to develop specific actions for delivery."