Is Edinburgh ready to tackle climate change with rain gardens?



Directing polluted road runoff to on-street “Raingardens” is a tried and tested technique to reduce flood risk.



Earlier this month as part of my work outside the Council I gave an invited lecture in Beijing to engineers, planners and academics from across the developing world about managing the impact of climate change. Over the duration of the weeklong workshop I was humbled to learn more about the enormity of the risk facing places like Ecuador, Nepal, Vietnam, Bangladesh and Laos in dealing with a problem that is not their making. I returned from this trip determined to redouble Edinburgh’s efforts to tackle climate change.

The flooding Edinburgh experienced this year may have been localised, but the impact on individuals has was non-trivial. Although this weather is not a prediction of what our capital can expect in the future, it is a taste of what climate change may bring. I was therefore pleased to contribute to a motion which asks the Council to review its climate change preparedness and resilience. The text of the motion is as follows:

Climate Change Impact and Management

1. Acknowledges the severe weather conditions experienced by the city and elsewhere in recent weeks and recognises that these events may be a taste of what climate change could bring.
2. Recognises that these put significant strain on drainage systems and other infrastructure, causing some surface water flooding and damage to property.
3. Acknowledges that there is a need for the Council to be prepared and far-sighted in its approach to building in resilience in the city, alongside its work to make Edinburgh a net zero carbon city by 2030.
4. Acknowledges the comments of flood insurance specialist Professor David Crichton in which he indicated that many local authorities in Scotland have already been ‘good at managing risk’.
5. Requests a report to Council which indicates clearly the work already being undertaken and needed across the Council to meet heightened demands caused by extreme weather and future considerations, within 3 cycles.

Although this motion goes far beyond flooding, I am keen to push the Council to do more to manage runoff. Rainwater runoff from roads, roofs and car-parks in many parts of our Capital (esp pre WEWS Act) adds to flood risk and pollutes our watercourses, and tackling this problem at source as much as possible is the most sustainable approach.  I hope to amend the above motion to include two key changes.

Firstly,  as part of Climate Change Impact & Management report I will propose that Council Officers enter discussions with Scottish Water and the Scottish Government, and report on the feasibility of offering advice and incentives to property owners who wish to manage surface water within their own curtilage rather than discharging to the surface water or combined drainage system. This could draw inspiration from:

1. Portland’s Downspout Disconnection Programme (this disconnected over 56,000 roofs from the city’s combined sewer system)
2. The Puget Sound’s 12,000 Raingarden Project
3. Melbourne’s 10,000 Raingarden Project


Secondly, as part of Climate Change Impact & Management report I will propose that Council Officers investigate and report on the feasibility of installing on-street bioretention planters to intercept polluted road runoff and support biodiversity as part of the ongoing investment programme.  This could draw inspiration from:

1. Case studies developed by TfL
2. Water Research Foundation Guidance
3. Portland’s Green Streets Programme

These are small changes which will make our capital more resilient to climate change, whilst also reducing the amount of pollutants reaching water courses and increasing biodiversity. People will ask about the cost, but the reason other cities are taking this approach is because it is cheaper.

A cityscape like this is the alternative: 







Edinburgh’s Tourism Strategy is a chance for it to show it’s serious about the Climate Emergency


The Council currently has a consultant working on its “Tourism Strategy”. This is important politically as there is a growing feeling that this is an area where commercial interests have too much say, and the city is currently struggling to cope with the number of visitors. There is also a growing awareness that while much money is being made, too many people working in the sector are faced with poor pay and conditions in what are euphemistically called “entry level” jobs by the Council.

Indeed, the Council has named the strategy “Edinburgh 2020, The Edinburgh Tourism Strategy” and 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.

Stage 1 of this £60,000 industry led strategy development identified six “issues”: Accommodation supply; Value per visitor, and productivity; Visitor experience and pedestrian experience; Visitor-resident relationship; Tourism leadership, governance and delivery; and, Tourism demand.

Somewhat bizarrely, sustainability and climate change is not an “issue”, nor are the considered on any reports presented to Councillors on the development of the strategy. For the record, the reports went to the following committees: Culture and Communities Committee and Housing and Economy Committee.  In addition, a draft Policy Statement on Tourism was recently considered by the Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee.

I find this really concerning as tourism in general is a sector closely connected to the environment and climate, and is considered to be a vulnerable and highly climate-sensitive economic sector. The impacts can be both direct and indirect, with some scenarios showing climate shocks elsewhere may drive people to the UK and other temperate climates.

We also know tourism is a key contributor to Greenhouse Gas emissions. A recent study suggested that up to 8% of all emissions may be due to tourism.  To be clear, this is not just about flights but how hotels are managed and food is consumed.

If we are serious about the Climate Emergency we are facing, we can’t consider growing the tourism sector in Edinburgh without a clear, unequivocal and genuine commitment to review its carbon footprint. There is a real opportunity here for Edinburgh to show how to grow the tourist economy without also growing the environmental impact. Let’s do it.

Privatisation of Public Space – We have to remember it’s our built and cultural heritage that makes Edinburgh special.


Juliet Wilson’s image highlights a loss on amenity (and footpath) in Princes Street to support commercial activity.

When I first moved from Dundee to Edinburgh in 1996 is was during “The Festival”. I embraced its vibrancy, diversity and inclusiveness. My abiding memory of that summer was that, compared to Dundee, the large number of people on the streets meant I always felt safe when walking around the city at night.

Since then, however, in my view the Edinburgh’s Festivals have changed. The old experience is still there I’m sure, but it’s drowned out by a bigger and much more commercial offering – this perhaps reflects changes we’ve seen elsewhere in society. One estimate puts the value of the Festivals as being £1 billion.

Although some people do make valid points about the nature and character of Edinburgh’s Festivals (particularly the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), most of us remain proud that people from around the world want to come to Edinburgh to enjoy the Festivals, explore our fantastic city and gamble with our weather. Like me, however, they want visitors to see Edinburgh at its best. Whether visitors are from Newtongrange, Newcastle or New Zealand, Edinburgh residents want to be proud of what they see when they come here. Like me, they want bins emptied, potholes filled and weeds cleared from footpaths. It’s easy to dismiss these problems, but first impressions really do count.

Harder to dismiss, however, has been the creeping privatisation of public space in our cities. The impact of this means that amenity is lost for visitors and residents alike.  Three examples:

  1. I am a fan of Edinburgh’s “A-Board Ban” which means footpaths can’t be used to display temporary on-street advertising structures.  This frees up valuable footpath space, making it easier and safer for those with mobility problems, buggies and young children to get around. Whilst it may be right that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is shown some flexibility on this, the exemption they have has gone much further than expected.
  2. One of the great things about Edinburgh, is the unexpected fantastic views people encounter just walking around the city. However, the creeping privatisation of public space means these views are now being blocked to support commercial activity or to host advertising.
  3. Outside my Ward, one of the best views in Edinburgh is looking from Princess Street, across the gardens, up to the castle. This view is part of what defines Edinburgh and on any day of the year pedestrians (both residents and visitors alike) can you found photographing it. The problem is that these same people can also view ticketed events in Princess Street Gardens so on “safety” grounds a wooden barrier was erected last year and nobody quite knew what to do (see here and here for big talk, and here for the u-turn. This year we have a “curtain style” barrier and access is denied to large sections of the footpath on the south side of Princes Street. The barrier also extends around a large portion of Princes Street Gardens and access is via a £35 ticket. Creeping privatisation essentially means that increasingly the public can’t fully access public parks.

What is interesting is that those that support the ever-increasing impact on public space are unwilling to enter a debate about the loss of amenity. Instead, they suggest that those who question their agenda are somehow “anti-tourist”. Indeed, Steve Cardownie recently referred to those who are trying to make Edinburgh better for residents and visitors alike as the “wet blanket brigade and other assorted naysayers”, and followed this up with a second article written as if he were one of them – Grumpy McGrump.  Written in the “what have the Romans ever done for us” style, it focuses on the many positives of the festival without really considering how it could be improved.

Building on this Cardownie’s argument a fellow Nationalist his, Council Leader Adam McVey, recently took to Twitter to tell the world that the £35 Glasgow’s DF Concerts were charging for access to concerts was affordable to “young people” and “working class people”, and that £145 may be acceptable. Again, no comment was made about the loss of amenity. The reality is that McVey appears a little out-of-touch as many young working class people in my Ward are struggling to pay their rent right now, never mind paying £145 for a concert ticket.

To be absolutely clear I am not saying these concerts should stop, although I know that those who support the creeping privatisation of public space will try to characterise my argument in that way. I do, however, reject the argument that they can’t happen without compromising pedestrian safety on Princes Street and, as I said elsewhere, we need to protect our parks from creeping privatisation.

That’s why I was recently concerned to read that Glasgow’s DF Concerts thinks Princes Street Gardens could become “Scotland’s answer to the Hollywood Bowl” and urged Edinburgh to look at New York’s Central Park because it has “loads of events”, saying cities like Edinburgh need to “utilise their assets” better. The basis of this approach appears to be that West Princes Street Gardens is a commodity which should be encircled by barriers so it can be exploited.  Similarly, the Scotsman is reporting that the gardens may be used to screen  “major sporting events”.

It may well be that these changes are for the best, and the city may benefit from them. I can’t help thinking, however, that we can do better. The Scotsman article also notes that the Gardens may well be used for bite-sized Tattoo performances. Would it not be great if this was opened up to people for free?

In July this year the National Mall parkland in the USA was used as a place to celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing. These fantastic events (video link below) were attended by thousands of people for free. I’d much rather that Edinburgh’s public parks was used for this type of  inclusive event rather exclusive events for those that can afford it.

Whether it is obscured views or cluttered pavements, visitors must leave Edinburgh thinking we take our heritage for granted. We have to remember it’s our built and cultural heritage that makes Edinburgh special, not boarded up parks and blocked pavements.



Thanks for funding George Street, but where is the rest of our money?


I absolutely welcome the news that Edinburgh has been awarded £20m towards its scheme to revamp George Street. This money should help transform it from a car park to a place designed for people, and all involved in the project should be warmly congratulated for the time and energy they have invested in it.

It is worth thinking about, however, where the Scottish Government found the money. Research published by Holyrood in July showed that although the Scottish Government’s Revenue has fallen by 2.8% between 2013-14 and 2018-19, they have chosen to cut Council funding over the same period by 7.5%. This manifests itself in Edinburgh in the form of a social care system in crisis, cratered pavements, blocked drains, full litter bins, rampant weeds and schools where teachers buy the pencils. Frankly, at times I am embarrassed at the state of our city and utterly frustrated by these cuts.

So Micheal Matheson MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity) turning up with funding for George Street is akin to a burglar clearing out my house and coming back the next day with a couple of DVDs he didn’t fancy.

It’s little wonder that the only Edinburgh Councillors that turned up to meet Matheson to take part in the charade were nationalists, others may have been tempted to ask where there rest of our money was.

The reality is that Councils should not have to submit “bids” and “compete” for money to be “awarded” to them. This money should be there’s by right, not something they have to bow and scrape for.


Briefing – The potential block on voting rights for religious representatives on schooling issues in Edinburgh.


Archbishop Leo Cushley opening a new gym hall at St Margaret’s RC Primary school in South Queensferry

The  Evening News on Monday reported that Archbishop Leo Cushley had raised concerns about a move by the Greens and Lib Dems Parties to “block voting rights (on the Education Committee) for religious representatives on schooling issues“. He saw the move as a threat to Catholic education in Edinburgh. His intervention quickly became national news. Although Greens in Glasgow have distanced themselves from the move,  the Greens in Edinburgh  are not backing down despite there being doubt that the move is even legal.  

To be clear, I am absolutely committed to the continuance of Catholic education in Edinburgh and want the  Catholic Church of Scotland to have a say in how it is delivered. As an Elder of the Church of Scotland, I also feel all faiths should be more vocal on issues of concern to society, and help give a voice to those that don’t have one. I feel having voting rights serves both those aims.

Last year I spoke informally to Rabbi David Rose about his involvement in the committee, and he was clear to me that he felt his involvement was worthwhile, but he seldom used his right to vote (Note – I don’t know his view on voting rights).  I think he has now stood down and the position has moved to another faith, but I expect they will have the same experience.  Faith leaders like Rabbi Rose are well connected to their communities and wider society, so there is no doubt they have a valuable contribution to make. However, speaking at Council Committee is very different from having voting rights.

I understand why people are concerned about this issue, but I think it’s right that all faith groups have a say on how schools operate – particularly the faith element. Any change to voting rights should be part of a wider discussion about faith education in schools and how stakeholders can have a say in it. Arbitrarily removing voting rights is not the answer.

Below is a briefing on the issue from Council Officers. 


You may be receiving lobby letters regarding the voting rights of religious reps on the Education, Children and Families Committee. Ian would like to respond on behalf of the Labour Group and asks that you please send any letters through to him for a reply. Some background information you may find useful;

 EC&F has three religious representatives (Catholic Church, Church of Scotland and Interfaith) and one parent representative. The parent representative is currently a non-voting member whilst the religious representatives have voting rights.  This stems from the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 which states if an Education authority forms a Committee, it must include religious representatives. The act however says nothing on the voting rights of the religious members, this is at the discretion of the local authority. Previously, the Committee had a parent rep as a voting member and 2 teacher reps however as teachers are employees of the Council this was felt to be inappropriate and the positions removed.

Traditionally religious reps abstain from voting although there is nothing to prevent them doing so.  Perth and Kinross Council have recently removed the voting rights of their religious reps following a decision in which the reps voted which resulted in a school closure. This has sparked interest in other local authorities and although there has been no legal challenge to the decision from Perth and Kinross, there are concerns there would be more attention focused on Edinburgh as the capital. This has gained particular attention from the Catholic Church with the Archbishop Leo Cushley writing to priests describing this as the first step in removing faith education from schools in Scotland.

A report in response to the Green motion will go to Council in August, the recommendations outline the legal position and ask elected members to decide whether to remove the voting rights. If these were to be removed, the religious reps would remain on the Committee as non-voting members.

The A-Board Ban, The Fringe & My Apology.


Although it has not been problem free, I am a fan of Edinburgh’s “A-Board Ban” which means footpaths can’t be used to display temporary on-street advertising structures.  This frees up valuable footpath space, making it easier and safer for those with mobility problems, buggies and young children to get around.

The policy does, however, come with exemptions. Inexplicably, one is the Council’s own on-street advertising structures. One of the others is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (other festivals are not mentioned), on them the policy says:

The Festival represents an extraordinary period in the city’s events calendar, and as an
internationally recognised event, it brings with it thousands of visitors which provide
a significant boost to Edinburgh’s economy. Having regard to this, there has been a
long-standing acceptance that many of the restrictions that are in place throughout
the rest of the year are relaxed. Notwithstanding this, the Council continues to work
closely with signage and event organisers and reviews infrastructure each year to ensure it meets with public safety requirements and respects particularly sensitive

This morning I spotted online that some of the on-street advertising structures promoting Edinburgh Fringe Festival acts did not (in my opinion) meet “with public safety requirements”… or at least common sense (images above). In response, I promptly e-mailed senior people in both the Council and the Fringe Society.

Twelve hours later I have not had a reply from the Senior Council Officer yet, but the prompt reply I received from the Fringe Society was an education for me:

The Outdoor Advertising Scheme promoting acts on the Fringe is not managed by the Fringe Society, it is managed by Out of Hand (OoH) who are contracted by the City of Edinburgh Council.  Each site is clearly labelled with a reference and contact details for reporting any issues (highlighted in your first image) which are always dealt with promptly. The Fishmarket Close example you have given was as a result of overnight vandalism and had already been picked up by a daily check made of all sites by Out of Hand,  before the complaint came in, and was in the process of being fixed. 

And also:

In addition to the Outdoor Advertising, and as part of the contract,  OoH facilitate an anti-littering campaign for CEC and do an extensive clear up operation of flyposting, chewing gum, etc. from an agreed perimeter around each Fringe advertising site which makes a considerable difference to the cleanliness of the city and 99% all materials produced are recycled at the end of the Fringe (the other 1% is taken home by companies).

Of course I had to apologise, but I simply did not expect the Council to be responsible for this. Every day is a learning day.





What does the City of Edinburgh Councils do with your “waste” plastics?

Bin Man

Where will my milk bottle end up?

I was asked by a constituent what the Council does with the plastics it collects. Specifically they wanted to know if it was being recycled, landfilled or burned. This was triggered by the “War on Plastic” BBC TV Programme.  Below is the answer…

The Council has in place various collection systems which directly collect materials for recycling or which otherwise divert materials  for recycling, but is not always directly involved in selling to the end use markets.

The main one which householders will use is the contract which covers dry mixed recycling (paper, card, cans and plastics) from household kerbside collections, recycling points in flats and public recycling points, but other sources of recyclable materials include litter bins (which are not collected specifically for recycling but are sorted to allow some recycling to take place), and the bulk recycling skips at Household Waste Recycling Centres.

Although these services are different in detail, for each of our mixed recycling services (green recycling bin, packaging banks and litter collections) essentially in each case a contractor is receiving the mixed streams of materials. These then go through a sorting process and the different materials are sorted into individual streams. It is the contractor’s responsibility to place the materials on the recycling markets. Because the markets themselves change constantly, the waste management companies will deal with a number of different companies across their different waste streams and these may change on an ongoing basis. However it should be noted that the export of clean, properly sorted materials (as opposed to what was shown on the programme) is a legitimate activity. Although some outlets for these are in the Far East, equally materials  are exported from the UK to Europe and Scandinavia. So many of the goods we use are themselves imported so they have to be exported to be recycled.

We publish information in relation to this on our website at here.

The waste management company may not always necessarily be selling to the end user but to an intermediary who in turn sells onto a reprocessor who may be cleaning and shredding materials, and then ultimately to someone who buys the now raw materials to make something with.  This is a function of how the waste management industry is structured. However The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) is responsible for regulating all aspects of the waste industry so they will be aware of the end destinations of recycled materials for the whole of Scotland (in England and Wales this is managed by The Environment Agency). They publish this on a system called Waste Data Flow which tracks all waste in the UK and where it is going, although some of the information will be redacted for commercial reasons.

Each waste management company we deal with issues a monthly statement to us which provides the total of each material recycled (paper, card, plastics, metals, rejects or residual wastes, etc) but it will not always be broken down any further. This is complicated further because when the markets are performing particularly well there will be more incentive to carry out sorting into more streams (e.g. to separate milk bottles from coloured bottles, which may otherwise be reprocessed together).

To use the example of the mixed recycling contract, which is managed by Biffa it is their responsibility to sort and sell as much as possible for recycling and indeed it is in their interest to do so as that material has a market value to them.

We of course realise that there will be materials in each load which either should not be there (e.g. toys, clothes, etc) or is too contaminated (e.g. because it was not cleaned). There are also some materials such as black microwave trays which are recyclable but the markets are weak. Those would be recycled where possible but if there is no market they do have the option not to pull them out.  However materials which are not recycled in the mixed recycling stream are reprocessed as refuse derived fuel, which means they are shredded and dried and used as a cleaner replacement for coal in a power station operated by Scottish and Southern Energy, so there is still an environmental benefit. We do not collect plastic films (e.g. plastic bags) such as those featured in the programme.

There are some exceptions to this – for example glass, food, wood, and garden waste are all collected as single streams and go to a specific end user. The outlets for some of those are listed on our website at , but these are all recycled in Lothian or, in the case of glass, Lanarkshire.

Recycling rates in this country are based on what is sent for recycling after it has been sorted, not what is collected at the start- this is in contrast to other countries where the materials which are sent for refuse derived fuel would often be counted as recycled as well.  Our performance is reported monthly to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and published annually in a user friendly format here.