It sometimes takes a personality outside of politics but with an informed and insightful view to raise an important issue so people sit up and take note. Pete Irvine is one such person. The man who put Edinburgh’s Hogmanay on the World events map and author of the respected guide book ‘Scotland the Best’, has said out loud what many people have been thinking: Edinburgh is suffering from “over-tourism”.
Had it been a local councillor, even the Council leader Adam McVey, I doubt there would have been such a stir. Fortunately, Irvine is not a politician but has traipsed round Scotland and can attest to how busy the country is becoming, be it camper vans making roads impassable or tourist hordes making our narrow streets almost permanently overcrowded.
Edinburgh has a particular problem. The airport is already seeing adjacent hotels springing up and desperately needs a new link road to take the traffic that goes between it and the city – or routes through the capital.
Waverley Station’s passenger footfall has doubled to 24 million over the last ten years and is expected to double again to 49m before 2050.
It’s not just traffic but human congestion that is creating problems. Tourism doesn’t just bring visitors, it requires workers to meet their needs. It is the combination of being an attractive destination and the employment this generates that creates so much movement of people.
As visitors and commuters arrive in ever-greater numbers a tram extension to Newhaven is not going to be much help; the situation requires creative and strategic decisions that help spread the growth, and people, around the city. How does Edinburgh achieve that when the last few decades have been defined by political stalemate over any big choices?
Last year I took the unusual step of having a holiday with visiting friends in Edinburgh, even though it is my own city. The experience convinced me that Edinburgh has changed significantly in what it now has to offer – and is now struggling to cope. Forty years ago there really were only two or three decent restaurants. Now we are spoiled for choice and second only to London in the UK for quality and range. But the poor state of the city’s built environment saddened me. The cracked pavements and kerbsides with litter and weeds made once-tidy streets look shabby. The potholes and poorly kept roads made going anywhere bumpy and uncomfortable (I don’t mean the cobbles).
With the city council’s public finances under constant pressure over the last decade – and further Scottish government cuts to come – it is difficult to see how the physical state can improve. The hoped-for income from a “Tourist Tax” will not now arrive until after 2021. Resolving Edinburgh’s problems needs more than pubic funding – it requires some strong and imaginative leadership.
Is it not time to learn from other British and European cities that benefit from having a mayor? Could a directly elected Lord Provost with the executive powers to manage Edinburgh’s transport and infrastructure, provide the capital with the necessary authority to bring change it has found difficult in the past?
A model like that of the London Mayor and the Greater London Authority could be developed for Edinburgh’s own circumstances. Having a directly elected Lord Provost for no more than two fixed terms is much more likely to attract people with the professionalism and calibre of expertise from business than expecting them to be a councillor for years first, loaded with all the political baggage and very wide responsibilities.
We need governance fit for Scotland’s capital city in modern times, not the sleepy 1950s. In days of empire we used to travel to the world, now the world comes to us.
Costs should not be an additional burden. I am not proposing an additional tier of government but a separation of powers, with fewer councillors focussing on other services such as education and social services. Look at the growth patterns of cities and you will always find that improved transport methods are at the heart of progress.
Making transport and infrastructure the key role of a directly elected Lord Provost will empower the electorate and give the city a leader with a mandate. Are new relief roads required so we can take more traffic out of the centre? Do we need more development away from the Old and New towns to reduce the number of commuters? Could the south suburban railway provide relief to the city centre by making the periphery more attractive? Do we need new transport hubs to take the strain away from Waverley and St Andrew Square where trains buses and trams all meet?
There are councillors who tell me there are some things that could be done differently but partisan politics gets in the way. A directly elected Provost need not wear a party label, independent mayors have been elected across Britain, and re-elected for their success. Unionist or nationalist, capitalist or socialist – does it really make a difference to how easy it is to get around the city and how well it’s looked after?
Pete Irvine has done Edinburgh a favour by raising the issue of “over-tourism” – if it is not addressed soon enough then our capital may end up becoming a victim of its own success. I fear overcoming the petty politics and showing leadership that can unify the city is too big a challenge for the council, we must change our institutions of governance if Edinburgh is to avoid growing pains. A directly elected Lord Provost cold meet that challenge.