The sign over Edinburgh Central Library reads “Let There Be Light”. Perhaps that is why, of the many planning fiascos to come from Edinburgh City Council in recent years, this is the one that has moved me to write something. Libraries are important. Publicly owned public spaces are important. Both are under threat. The decision to allow yet another hotel to occupy part of central Edinburgh, in a location already earmarked for the Central Library, is nothing short of civic and cultural vandalism (‘£65m Edinburgh hotel plan ‘to be given go-ahead’ despite UNESCO concerns‘).
Councillor Lewis Ritchie was quoted on STV, “We have got an awful lot to gain by permitting this development and I look forward to the regeneration and exciting new future that I think this particular part of Edinburgh will get.”
What kind of regeneration? Whose future?
Whose Cities Are These
When Patrick Geddes was laying down the foundations of town planning in the early 20th century, he took a holistic view. It had to be all about primary human needs before anything else. The city is a place for people, its own inhabitants and visitors alike, and it should respond to their needs and the relationships between these needs.
Edinburgh’s city centre is a mess. It is starved of people. Yes, I can hear everyone exclaiming loudly, but bear with me. Most of the people we see daily don’t live there, or not for long. They are merely passing through. Their connection to the place is transitory. They engage with the city on a superficial level only. Yes, they may repeat the process daily, but the relationship with the place scarcely changes. Who do those people meet? Mostly others like themselves, others passing through. It is all about processing people, about. City centres should be somewhere to live and to build community. And what of these ‘visitors’? They don’t experience Edinburgh in any meaningful way. Instead, they find a commodified, packaged and sanitised version.
The over-provision of hotel accommodation is just one symptom of this. We’ve seen it in the Royal High School site, the St. James Centre site and now here too. There is no planning here – this is piecemeal. There is no vision – this is reactive, reacting to commerce as the primary driver, not human needs. This is all about consumption and this is Edinburgh PLC.
Power and accountability
Edinburgh City Council is failing in its democratic responsibilities to the people of Edinburgh. All the cases I’ve mentioned above met with sizeable opposition and yet they went ahead. What is the role of our local government and who calls the tune?
For a start, it’s too remote. In Norway, 1 in 81 will stand in a local election. Here it’s 1 in 2071 and an average only 2.1 people contest each seat. Where is the representation in that? This democratic deficit allows decisions like this to happen. If our Councillors are too remote to represent us, who are they actually representing?
Dare I mention Oxgangs Primary School and what then followed? This was all about handing public resources to the private sector and we see this again with the India Buildings development. Profiteers with little interest beyond their own revenue generating activities are the beneficiaries while we lose out. One of our key, city centre, public assets will be irreversibly diminished by this.
Resisting the darkness
The best way to challenge undemocratic decisions is by community mobilisation. It is time for people, collectively, to shine some light into the murky spaces where these decisions are made and expose them for what they are. It is time to stand with our Library, reclaim our city centre and our democracy.