As a new Councillor in Edinburgh I am always grateful for the work that those that came before me undertook to make our city what it is today. There is much to be proud of in terms of our culture, our built environment and our natural heritage.
From a transport perspective we are lucky, the city is well connected with the outside world and we have a publicly owned bus service which is second to none.
Nonetheless, we live in a time of change and challenge where transport is concerned. The combined forces of economic growth, climate change, air pollution and congestion are placing real pressures on our city and those that live in it. The era of the car may not be over, but the notion that we can drive our way out of the challenges our city faces has no future.
Edinburgh’s solution to the challenges we face is the “Edinburgh City Centre Transformation Strategy“, which aims to move the design of our city centre away from cars and towards people. The emphasis is on creating a city (not just a city centre) where it is easier for people to move around on public transport, foot and bike.
The temporal and spatial scale of the proposed change is daunting, but also energising. It’s called a transformation, but it is really a revolution. Indeed, I am reminded of the Edinburgh Bicycle Co-Operative slogan – “The revolution will not be motorised”.
So it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are, but our city was not built by those who wanted to wait or look backwards. Those who came before us made certain that this city rode the first waves of the Enlightenment, and this generation can’t founder in the backwash of others where creating a liveable city is concerned.
To be clear, the proposed end result will not be revolutionary, it is the process of getting there which is. The end result will be normal if you’ve been to places like Vienna and Copenhagen. To be sure, we are behind these cities right now, and will be behind for some time. But we should not intend to stay behind, and in the next decade, we have a chance to catch up and move ahead.
Such a Breath-taking strategy, however, creates new challenges as it dispels old. Key amongst these is ensuring that the accessibility of the city centre continues to improve as the plans develop. More work is also needed to better define the costs and benefits, particularly around public transport connectivity, emissions and air quality.
Currently, the costs are estimated to be £314.6m and the benefits £420m, and as this is just a strategy at this stage the optimism bias is 44%. It will be difficult (essentially impossible) for the Council to fund this, so resources will be sought via the Scottish Government (who think £120m for rebuilding Sheriffhall Roundabout is good value) via their STPR2 scheme. This would be part of a regional scheme focussed on connecting the city centre with the suburbs and surrounding towns via world class public / active transport links.
Politically, there is strong support in the Council for the strategy with only 3 of the 11 Councillors on the Transport Committee yesterday opposing it – Cllr Susan Webber, Cllr Graeme Hutchison & Cllr Nick Cook. Cllrs Webber and Hutchison admitted at the meeting they knew little (both were substitutes) of the history of the development of the strategy and the massive public consultation exercise which informed its development. It was also suggested that their ringleader, Cllr Nick Cook, had only attended 1 of 8 working groups meetings where it was possible to discuss and steer the project. Instead he chose to describe the strategy as a “plan to strip away pay & display parking and free movement of vehicles in the city centre”. I can’t be convinced anyone wants the “free movement of vehicles in the city centre”, or that introducing it will help manage the combined forces of economic growth, climate change, air pollution and congestion.
Once the gang of three lost the argument, however, they did manage to delay the further development of the strategy by demanding it is considered by all 63 Councillors at Full-Council next week. I expect they will repeat the same failed arguments, and lose again.
Whilst this delay is limited, it is a sign that we all have to do more to convince others of the scale of the challenges we face. In the blog I have borrowed a few phrases from JFK (not for the first time), but I am reminded that in his “Moon Speech” he quoted William Bradford to convey the scale of the challenge. Although the challenge Edinburgh faces is different, the quote is still apt: “all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and both must be enterprised and overcome with answerable courage”.