There can be no doubt that concern about the impact of Edinburgh’s visitor economy has grown considerably in recent years. When I heard from the Evening News that a petition had been launched to demand change, I actually welcomed the news. However, on reading the article and the petition, I feel unconformable about the way the Council Leader (Adam McVey, SNP Councillor for Leith) is being targeted.
To be clear, I share the frustration about the creeping privatisation of public space in Edinburgh, particularly how people are locked out of public parks and the lack of respect for our heritage. As a city, we are blessed with a fantastic built, natural and cultural heritage and I want to share it with people from all over the world. However, right now I don’t feel we are making the most of it. It feels like too many people in this city see profit in everything, and value in nothing.
For me, the tipping point came in the summer of 2018 when we had a black hording blocking views of the Castle. Since then we’ve seen memorial benches “discarded”, months of controversy over the Christmas Market, Church leaders ‘disappointed’ with ‘premature removal’ of Edinburgh’s famous nativity sculpture for Johnnie Walker advertising, and too many more examples of how our heritage is being sacrificed for quick commercial gain. However, these things keep happening and the Council is left reacting to events.
“East Princes Street Gardens have been essentially handed over to the London-based Underbelly for ten weeks to do with as they wish, without the inconvenience of having to get planning permission beforehand. West Princes Street Gardens is screened off in August for the Summer Sessions concerts. Unbelievably ugly security barriers have been erected on the Royal Mile.”
“Edinburgh is now effectively run by the tourist industry”
On a personal note, my lovely wife’s grandfather was a Polish servicemen who came to Leith after Poland fell to the Nazis, and went on to fight alongside UK and Norwegian forces in Norway. Because of this, I am always hugely proud to see Edinburgh’s memorials marking Scotland’s links to Polish and Norwegian troops stationed here in WWII. Amongst these is the Christmas Tree placed annually on The Mound which is gifted to the city by Hordaland (Norway) to mark the “assistance provided by the Scots to Norway in WWII”. I was disappointed to see that this year the tree was hacked down right after Christmas and the memorial to Wojtek the bear and Polish WW2 veterans was fenced off on the same day (images below). What must people from outside Edinburgh make of this?
I accept that the Council Leader has often been left reacting to these events. Rather than force his resignation, however, I think we should instead focus on what we actually want to change. Councillor Donald Wilson has already committed to leading a full review, and I hope the public and all 63 of Edinburgh’s Councillors will get behind that.
In response to the petition the Council Leader said: “many issues being raised are part of wider debate about how we manage size and scale of festivals and tourism”. I actually feel it is more fundamental than how we manage the status quo. There are really three key questions:
- What scale is right? The Edinburgh Tourism Strategy” boasts it’s being developed by an “industry-led group facilitated by Scottish Enterprise” called ETAG (with no community representation). This group wants to grow the current tourist economy from 4.1 million visitors per year by one third to 5.5 million by 2030. Can this level of growth be accommodated sustainably?
- Is quality of what we’re offering positioning Edinburgh optimally? Right now visitors arriving via Waverly Station are greeted by the smell of fried onions and German sausages emanating from the Christmas Market. I love German beer and food, but surely Edinburgh should be promoting its fantastic built, natural and cultural heritage better? How can Edinburgh’s small business improve on this and benefit more?
- Who benefits? Today the Evening News carried an article from the tourism lobby (the ones that oppose the tourist tax) who are clearly concerned that the public is waking up to what’s going on. It’s claimed that the industry supports 33,000 jobs in Edinburgh. I welcome every one of those jobs (particularly my daughter’s), but I do wonder how many come with fair pay, good conditions and fixed hours?
Whilst calling for the Council Leader to resign may help vent some frustration, it’s making a difference to the lives of residents than matters. For me the starting point is to understand what Edinburgh wants to gain from its visitor economy, and then we have to deliver that.