Edinburgh: Inspiring Capital for Whom?

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, July 21st 2019

The world – or rather a very narrow, self-selecting part of it – is preparing to head to Edinburgh for the annual carnival of festivals and the Fringe.

These are good times for Edinburgh. It has experienced over two decades of sustained population growth – up from under 450,000 to 513,000, a rise of 14%. Unemployment is at a record low and across the city in sector after sector it feels like a boom town.

This is, in the eyes of the official version of the city, a golden era. Yet with all this good news why does it not feel like that universally? Why for many are there growing anxieties and worries, and alongside a concern that the big issues and challenges of the future are being deliberately ducked? Some even wonder where – unlike in previous eras – is the vision and a leadership for the city prepared to make difficult decisions to prepare Edinburgh for the future?

Edinburgh’s renaissance in the past decade has been one of the defining stories of recent times. The city has bounced back from the reverses of the financial crash in which the Fred Goodwin-led RBS nearly went bankrupt and had to be bailed out by the taxpayer. There followed a decade of continued growth, despite some financial sector reverses such as headquarter closures and rationalisations. Today 15% of all UK financial service employment is based in Edinburgh, and the city is by far the second biggest and most important financial centre outside of London.

The service sector – restaurants, pubs, shops, hotels, taxis and a whole host of other areas – is booming. And of course this is the town with the reputation of ‘Festival City’ – which began in 1947 with the high culture Edinburgh International Festival, spread to the more democratic Fringe, and now runs to a year-long jamboree of seemingly never-ending festivals.

Edinburgh now feels the capital of a nation. It is home to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, to hosts of civil servants and associated support services. It feels an important place of power, influence and wealth, and its burgeoning middle class believe that things can only get better. But it also means according to Prof. Iain Docherty of Stirling University that the city is ‘dealing with problems of rapid growth, which are not the kinds of public policy issues that we are used to dealing with.’

Edinburgh’s financial services are mostly not part of an indigenously owned Scottish industry. The city is a haven of tech businesses and start-ups but most financial industries are involved in the pseudo-enterprise of the global bull market in equities and bonds – all underwritten by government backed quantitative easing.

Then there are the stress points of tourism – an industry estimated to be worth 35,000 jobs and £1.5 billion per annum – and which saw over four million people visit the city last year, all of which is predicted to grow. There are now significant concerns over the costs of this, in over-tourism, pressure points and blockages in the city centre, airbnb saturation, and calls for a tourist tax to alleviate the worst of this. Edinburgh has become a global hot spot – like Barcelona, Venice and Dubrovnik – with the downside that its very success has come at a cost and become a problem.

The pressure of constant festivals has begun to erode the quality of life. Despite this Fergus Linehan, Edinburgh International Festival director said in 2017: ‘The idea that the city or the festivals have reached some kind of capacity is nonsense’, and that any comparison with places like Venice was ridiculous, giving sustenance to the idea that there was no limit to growth. This is the mindset of the growth fetish – all that matters is the mantra of year on year growth in ticket sales and tourists – with Linehan explicitly saying: ‘You can’t just stop. The notion that Edinburgh is full could be very deadening.’

Similarly, the success of the Fair Fringe Campaign – who demand better working conditions and pay has hit how this growth model sees itself. Shona McCarthy, head of the Fringe, publicly criticised it saying producers and promoters were being unfairly vilified and portrayed as ‘evil megalomaniacs’ by Fair Fringe activists. She went further saying that their campaign threatened the future viability of the festival, and its diversity and in particular, the Free Fringe.

Edinburgh prides itself on being a cultural capital, gaining honours such as UNESCO City of Literature, but as Mike Small of the ‘Citizen’ group which campaigns against overtourism points out: ‘The danger is that the Athens of the North becomes the Disneyland of the North.’

More and more voices are questioning the future direction of the city, particularly in relation to culture and tourism, and asking who gains and at what cost to the rest of the city in what is an unethical, unsustainable model. Two years ago a survey of Fringe workers found that nearly one in three were unpaid, with nearly half working more than 49 hours a week with a quarter paid less than £1,000 over the course of the festival.

Edinburgh has become a city which personifies the needs and interests of the comfortably off middle class and global elite. It has expanded its geographic footprint into numerous dormitory towns in West, Mid and East Lothian, and parts of Fife. But its trickle down economics contains, in the midst of a boom, significant areas of poverty and disadvantage that sit next to some of the most affluent parts of the country.

George Kerevan was a key Labour councillor in the city in the 1980s before joining the SNP and reflects that it is now part of ‘the neo-liberalism paradigm’ and ‘the domination of global finance capital, a debt-financed and ultimately unsustainable property boom’, all of which contributes to ‘the illusion of prosperity’. This amounts to an Edinburgh Bubble mentality.

This is a city where public amenities, resources and spaces are under continual pressure, being closed, curbed or curtailed to the public. Andy Wightman, Green MSP, states as one example, ‘Princes Street Gardens are common land – part of the Common Land Fund’ meaning it is owned by the people. He believes it is ‘time to change the law and give citizens greater democratic control.’

We have come far from the pioneering days of the council leadership when Labour won control of the city for the first time ever in 1984 – sending ripples of anxiety and shock through parts of the middle classes. That Labour council spoke for the forgotten majority of the city and promoted a whole host of controversial and far-reaching policies on employment, investment, infrastructure and culture, the benefits of which can still be seen today in achievements like the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. It is very different from the city council’s present caution – reinforced by the tram debacle – and its unwillingness to lead on a host of issues from transport to housing, and the environment.

Forty-four years ago, a young ex-Labour Glasgow councillor looked at the future of Scotland. He saw the country moving from West to East in population and economic growth, foretold the re-emergence of Edinburgh, the shift from old to new industry, and assessed that this would have big consequences politically. It would loosen traditional identities, weaken Labour and aid the SNP, and herald a shift towards independence. That man, writing in Gordon Brown’s ‘Red Paper’ was Vince Cable, current Lib Dem leader until Monday.

Edinburgh’s rise has been many times predicted and is part of a global story: of capital cities and growth hubs increasingly divorcing themselves from their national economies and placing themselves in an international context. What is often absent from these assessments is an analysis of who gains from this model, who is excluded, and where its dynamics take Edinburgh and its relationship with the rest of Scotland.

Missing so far from most Edinburgh considerations has been the kind of thinking done by Vince Cable all those years ago – of gazing into the next 20-40 years and asking is this really the best we can do. This would entail such challenges as daring to say – what kind of capital does Edinburgh really want to be? What kind of relationship does it want with the rest of Scotland? What kind of relationships do city authorities want to have with their own citizens? And what happens when you run up against the limits locally and globally of the growth model?

One crucial weathervane of Edinburgh, and indeed Scotland’s future, will be the direction of the middle classes of the city and where they see their interests. This is a city that voted decisively against independence in 2014 (61:39) and for remaining in the EU in 2016 (74:26) – in short, for the status quo in a world in which the status quo is no longer an option.

Large parts of the city and middle class Edinburgh have done well out of the long boom, but in the near-future have to face some difficult choices, not just constitutionally, but economically and ethically, and which will have political consequences.

This is an age of economic, social and political disruption, and Edinburgh will feel the full effects of this when the current long boom ends which, when combined with Brexit, demographic pressures and rising environmental pressures, the precarious nature of prosperity and growth becomes unavoidable.

One defining issue then will be which way will Edinburgh, and indeed, Scotland’s middle classes swing? Will they huddle to the crumbling status quo, or will they -as some did in this city in the 1980s – embark on radical ideas and thinking, which have the capacity to remake it and impact on the wider Scotland?

Edinburgh throughout its history has been a centre of invention and reinvention, including reinventing itself. It is time to draw from that tradition and aspire to be the best it can be: something unique, ambitious and ethically based, rather than a carbon copy of the global class city.