The people lobby can’t let the car lobby stop the Edinburgh City Centre Transformation.

Drapplin live in San dias

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.

Copenhagen

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”.

Why Edinburgh must control Edinburgh’s Tourist Tax revenue.

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Value and reputation damaged for a quick profit – we are destroying what visitors come to Edinburgh to see.

 

Like most people in Edinburgh, I am proud that so many people from around the world want to visit our fantastic capital city to enjoy all it has to offer. This pride often switches to shame, however, when I see they are confronted with grubby streets, overflowing bins and potholed pavements.

There can be little doubt that Edinburgh is struggling to cope with its own popularity and, if we are not careful, what tourists come to see is at risk of being destroyed.  No one was surprised when in July CNN Travel declared Edinburgh one of the world’s worst hotspots for “overtourism”.

Indeed, in the city there has been growing concern about the privatisation of public space for private gain, with even the A-Board ban being lifted to allow festival advertising to be placed on jam-packed footpaths.

In my article last month, I raised concerns about how the Council was managing the growth in tourism. Since then, an opportunity has arisen within the Scottish Government’s Programme for Government. I was delighted to see that the Scottish Government has at last listened to the public and will at least now consult on giving Edinburgh the power to set a tourist tax. As ever, however, there was a catch. The Scottish Government say: “receipts will be to fund local authority expenditure on tourism.”

I feel that denying Edinburgh the right to decide how the money is spent is insulting to local democracy. As a democrat, I want Edinburgh to have full control of its tourist tax revenue. If it is all to be spent on tourism, that should be Edinburgh’s decision and no one else’s.

At the very least, I feel the revenue should be invested in areas that benefit residents and visitors alike. If the tourist economy is to grow, it must grow geographically. Community projects like Colinton Tunnel Project (please visit the mural if you have not already done so), should be supported and promoted as ways of drawing tourists away from central Edinburgh to enjoy the better parts of our city(!). The extra money spent in these areas is far more likely to benefit Edinburgh residents than money spend elsewhere.

Briefing – Planned temporary closure of Bridge Road (Colinton).

 

Below is a briefings from SGN on the planned temporary closure of Bridge Road in Colinton. This issue will be discussed at the September Colinton Community Council meeting (7:30pm on the 10th of Sept in Colinton Bowling Club).

Answers to five questions I posed to the Council:

1. What will the impact on traffic be?
Has this been quantified? There is likely to be increased traffic flow on the diversion route, particularly at Craiglockhart Avenue, but unfortunately there is no alternative diversion route available. The closure is a necessity due to the location of their main and to allow a safe working zone. Closing the road will also allow them to get through this section quicker, and they have agreed to work 7am to 7pm 7 days a week.

2. What will the likely extra journey times for buses will be?
I’ll contact Lothian buses for this info and get back to you.

3. Will cyclists and pedestrians still be able to pass through the area?
Cyclists will likely be required to safely dismount. Pedestrians will have access at all times.

4. Will arrangements for deliveries and support for businesses be put in place?
Yes, these will be discussed when SGN visit the local businesses prior to commencement. They are hoping to speak to businesses before the Community Council meeting next Tuesday.

5. Will the parking restrictions also apply to “blue badge” holders
Yes.

 

From Caroline Lawrie, SGN Stakeholder and Community Manager:

As you are aware, SGN manages the network that distributes natural and green gas to 5.9 million homes and businesses across Scotland and the south of England. We also provide the gas emergency service in these areas.

We’re investing £438,000 to upgrade our gas network in the Bridge Road area of Colinton in Edinburgh.

This essential project involves replacing our old gas mains with new plastic pipe to ensure a continued safe and reliable gas supply for the local area for many years to come.

We’ve worked closely with the local authorities in planning our project. Our work will start on Saturday 12 October and will finish in early Spring 2020.

During this project it will be necessary to close the following streets to ensure everyone’s safety:

  1. Bridge Road, Edinburgh 12 October 2019 for approximately 4 weeks
  2. Westgarth Avenue, Edinburgh 28 October 2019 for approximately 6 weeks
  3. Redford Road, Edinburgh 07 January 2020 for approximately 10 weeks

Signed local diversion routes will be in place for motorists during the road closures, and local access will be maintained for residents. Where possible, the phases of this project have been planned to coincide with school holidays, and when traffic is likely to be quieter, ensuring disruption is kept to a minimum.

We’ll also need to use temporary traffic lights during various stages of the project. These will be manually controlled during peak times to minimise disruption as much as possible.

Some parking suspensions will also be in place, although access to driveways will always be maintained where possible.

We’ll be working Monday to Friday between 8am – 4pm, and at weekends where required. We know that this is a busy area and wish to assure you that work will progress as quickly as possible and we’ll be doing everything we can to limit delays and disruption.

We will post regular updates on our website and using social media and traffic bulletins to keep everyone informed.

 

Is Edinburgh ready to tackle climate change with rain gardens?

 

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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

Council:
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

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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.

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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?

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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.