The making of modern Edinburgh

Donald Anderson is a former leader of Edinburgh’s city council. He says that, during his time in office, he was “unashamedly pro-development”. Here, he reflects on the history of a city that he believes has grown substantially in stature…

THE subject of Edinburgh’s built environment has been hotly-debated, sometimes in a highly-charged and polarised way. There are good people on all sides of the debate, and we should respect that they all share a passion and love of the city.

Our city centre has the twin strengths of the glorious splendour of its New Town and an Old Town of startling character and beauty. Edinburgh grew rapidly from the inception of the New Town, but it still took around 80 years of development to give the city what is an undoubted triumph of urban planning. It was a ‘Golden Age’ for the city too; if not for its people, who mainly lived in the most abject poverty.

During much of the 20th century, however, the fate of the city centre was more troubled. 

A report, ‘The Development of Edinburgh’, by the Company of Merchants charitable organisation, noted the “centrifugal” forces pushing residents out of the city centre with a “corresponding decrease in the city centre wards”. It was a call for action.

By the 1940s, things were considered even worse, and the council launched a ‘Lord Provosts Commission’ on city development. 

At that time, Princes Street was described in withering terms, with its mixture of a “monotonous original and chaotic modern frontage, seen in the eyes of many as irremediable”. 

Parts of the High Street were in a state of dereliction, and homes there were described as “gradually being allowed to fall into decay”. 

The result was ‘A Civic Survey & Plan for the City & Royal Burgh of Edinburgh’ (aka the Abercrombie Plan), by planning-consultant-for-hire, Sir Patrick Abercrombie, and local city planner, Derek Plumstead, which proposed a new inner ring road and a complete demolition and reconstruction of Princes Street (with the proposed replacement buildings to incorporate a first-floor pedestrian walkway, looking over the imagined streaming road traffic).

We are indeed lucky that the policy was never fully implemented, though it wasn’t until the 1980s when it was formally revoked.

During the 1950s, dereliction continued and, in the Southside, at the infamous ‘Penny Tenement’, a gable end collapsed whilst residents slept. 

By the 1970s, the population of the city centre plummeted and by as much as two-thirds in the now thriving Holyrood area of the city.

A book published in the mid-’70s, ‘The Unmaking of Edinburgh’, by Helen Peacock, was excoriating. I wrote an article about it, for the Edinburgh Evening News newspaper – here. The sub-heading was revealing: ‘A new book reveals the scale of urban blight that affected central Edinburgh in the 1970s’.

Quoted in ‘The Unmaking of Edinburgh’, about the formation of the New Town Conservation Committee, the then secretary of the Edinburgh heritage body, the Cockburn Association, the wonderful Oliver Barratt, described the situation, thus: “The committee was duly established and began its Herculean task of halting 200 years of decay.” 

That task was only to really take off fully in the 1980s. The 1980s were critical in that key parts of the Abercrombie Plan were torn up by the then Edinburgh District and Lothian Region councils. 

The tide had turned, and the city centre was about to bounce back.

There was also an accidental revolution. An announcement of 90 per cent repair grants by the then Conservative Government turned out to be one of the greatest – and most expensive – contributions to conservation and city centre living anywhere. 

Over the following three decades, hundreds of millions of pounds of public money was invested in upgrading and renewing tenements throughout the city centre and beyond. 

At the same time, a tight Green Belt policy drove city centre housing development to a degree that quickly repopulated areas like the Southside, Gorgie, Dalry and Holyrood, which had emptied in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. 

Over the 25 years from the mid-80s, a slew of major regeneration projects took place or started. These included the arrival of the Scottish Parliament, the creation of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre and Exchange Financial District, Harvey Nichols – 20 years old this year, Waverley Gate, Advocates Close, the council’s own HQ and, latterly, the St James Quarter development. Businesses, particularly major financial companies, were encouraged to grow and invest in the city and city centre. 

And students arrived in huge numbers as the city’s universities expanded. That brought increased vibrancy to many communities and gives Edinburgh an ongoing ‘brain bounce’ from those who stay. By the mid-2000s, more than a quarter of the city population was born outside Scotland.

HMOs (houses in multiple occupation) have been controversial but purpose-built student accommodation has lately absorbed much of the growth in student numbers. Short-term holiday letting has grown too, and, though the population of the city centre has grown, it has changed. In my opinion, not a moment too soon, short-term holiday letting will be soon regulated.

The built heritage and most communities of the city are in good shape. Our historic buildings in the World Heritage site are now arguably better maintained than ever before. A recent survey by Edinburgh Council showed that just two Category A listed buildings will be left on the ‘At Risk’ register (here) maintained by Historic Environment Scotland – once current building work is complete, and none at all on the Royal Mile – remarkable. 

Recently, Leith was recently named (here) by The Sunday Times newspaper as the best place to live in the UK, something inconceivable during the ‘Trainspotting years’.

A resident of the once infamous Banana Flats in Leith commented recently in the local press (here) that “There is no deprivation as I know and remember it.”

Indeed, the Banana Flats are now Category A-listed and will be protected and preserved in a way unthinkable in the 1980s. There is deprivation, there are still drug problems and people do still struggle – and may struggle a lot more in the times ahead, but there is very little of the chronic destitution of the past. 

In Princes Street, the decline in physical retail has brought rapid and encouraging change. As a councillor for more than 20 years, I helped deliver just one major redevelopment in Princes Street, the building then occupied by clothes retailers, C&A.

Within the last five years, an array of redevelopments have started or completed that include the Johnnie Walker Visitor Centre and the redevelopment of the homes of many of the city’s traditional High Street brands including British Home Stores, Debenhams, New Look, Top Shop and of course the ‘grand old dame’ of Edinburgh shopping – Jenners – is now owned and is being (I think) lovingly redeveloped by Anders Povlsen, one of Europe’s richest people. I know of no other city outside London that is bouncing back as fast or strongly as Edinburgh.

Princes Street’s future is looking bright, but it’s not just as a shopping street.  

I’m admittedly biased, but I would argue that Edinburgh is a model of a successful regeneration and transformation. I believe that, unlike Icarus, when a city economy flies high, it does not subsequently crash. Rather, what happens is that it weathers downturns far better and recovers from them far more quickly than lower-performing economies. Put simply, more people keep their jobs in a downturn and those who lose them get back into work more quickly afterwards. 

Edinburgh has become a stunning economic success, and it’s a success for its residents too. 

In no period in the city’s history has the city lived through a period of such relative affluence and low unemployment as in recent decades, though people are undoubtedly suffering from recent economic woes caused by rising costs, COVID, the war in Ukraine and there is also the threat of another economic downturn. 

The future will always be tough, and there will always be challenges but Edinburgh can face that future with more confidence than the vast array of cities. We should seek to build on that success and make one of the best cities in the world even better. 

Donald Anderson is a former leader of The City of Edinburgh Council (1999-2006) and is currently director and owner of public affair and strategic communications consultancy, Playfair Scotland. He was previously director of the Scotland office of communications company, PPS, for nearly a decade. 

He was elected to Lothian Regional Council in 1986 and served as chair of the Economic Development Committee from 1990 to the reorganisation of local authorities (that created Edinburgh, Midlothian, etc as distinct entities) in 1994. He was chair of Economic Development at The City of Edinburgh Council, from 1995 to 1999. After his spell as council leader, he was ‘Cabinet Member’ for Tourism, Culture and Sport before standing down from the council in 2007. 

During his period in public office, he held a variety of positions, including: board member of tourism agency, VisitScotland, chair of Edinburgh and Lothian’s Tourist Board, chair of the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, chair of EDI (the council’s then arms-length property development company), chair of Edinburgh Park Business Park and he served on the boards of the International Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (understood to be an unique achievement by an elected member).

Picture credit: Place Design Scotland

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