NTBCC’s response to Edinburgh city centre transformation – proposed strategy

(Submitted by Allan Jack, NTBCC’s Transport convenor, to Edinburgh Council on 6 July 2019) 

We welcome

  • Creation of this integrated strategy, and its objectives

We note that

  • The strategy will only succeed if residents and visitors make different transport choices

We believe that

  • Having a high proportion of residents in the city centre is a major part of what makes Edinburgh unique and should be valued as a priority

We suggest that

  • In developing the various elements, residents’ interests should be given precedence over those of commerce and visitors
  • Traffic displacement should not negatively impact the Second and Third New Town
  • CEC should take action to protect the Second New Town/Broughton areas from the reduction of parking in the First New Town
  • Permit zone boundaries should be reviewed
  • CEC should demonstrate how the proposals will not displace air pollution from one area to another
  • CEC should commit to prompt transfer of public transport to electric charge
  • An effective system for removing commercial waste in the First New Town should be urgently introduced
  • Existing areas of first-rate public realm – especially Princes Street Gardens – should be better managed, and protected from unnecessary development
  • Management of public realm should be the sole responsibility of CEC and should not be delegated to external bodies
  • CEC should develop policies to minimise disruption in the city
  • Where CEC has identified over-provision of licensed premises, remedial action should be taken

We welcome this overarching strategy, which we hope will improve air quality, reduce traffic, and create more spacious and restful public realm in Edinburgh city centre for citizens and visitors alike.

The creation of an overarching strategy within a realistic framework of the challenges facing the city is welcome in itself. The absence of integrated planning has been a problem in the past and we commend the efforts of the present Council to define a broader vision and move towards implementation in a more integrated way. We look forward to commenting on the details of the various component initiatives in due course.

As before, we support the pedestrian priority concept, and the general ambition to reduce traffic and improve air quality and accessibility. We support the proposals for car-free streets, wider pavements and improved priority for pedestrians at road crossings. However we note that the success of the wider strategy is ultimately dependent on a reduction in cross-city traffic of about 25% (page 32), to be achieved by the package of measures as a whole bringing about changes in the transport choices people make.  While we support the aim for a significant reduction in private vehicle traffic in the city centre, we believe residents of the city at large should be able to travel North/South on North Bridge and Lothian Road so that a sense of ‘connectedness’ can be maintained.

We strongly support the principle on page 17 that the proposals should create “a better environment for city centre residents” i.e. those who reside in the ‘catalyst’ areas. Their interests are at least as important as those of commerce, and visitors, and we look to the proposed measures to redress any imbalance and give residents’ interests due precedence.

We also emphasise that the changes should not increase traffic, parking and pollution in areas immediately adjoining the centre.  We ask the Council to bring forward proposals to ensure that streets in the Second New Town are protected from the effects of reducing parking in the First.

We agree that permit zone boundaries should reviewed, as suggested on page 66.

We welcome the moves to improve connections between the Old Town and the New, especially those which will make it easier for people of all mobility levels to move around town and between transport links. The free hopper bus should be fully accessible to all mobility groups.

Additional steps

We do not believe it is enough to say that [the] “impact on air quality as a result of traffic displacement [will be] mitigated by the cumulative impact of wider strategy measures” (page 26). CEC should take pro-active steps to ensure that poor air quality is not simply displaced from one area to another.  To demonstrate real commitment to change CEC should lead by example, with public transport required to be electrically driven as soon as possible,

We suggest that the Council should also consider developing policies on pollution by diesel plant, gas central heating boilers and the portable generators used in events.

There should be a more effective system for removing commercial waste from the First New Town. The present system is sub-optimal, particularly in the lanes, and detracts from the quality of the public realm.

First New Town ‘catalyst area’

The section on the catalyst areas summarises the challenges facing the First New Town. However this part of the city already possesses large areas of top-quality public realm in East and West Princes Street Gardens, and the area at the foot of the Mound. The Council’s custodianship of these areas by the Development Management Sub-Committee and the Place Directorate could be improved. The expansion of street trading and the rolling cycle of temporary events means these areas do not deliver their full potential as places to “dwell”, or to be appreciated as the outstanding examples of urban heritage which they already are. Tighter control of event management could go a long way to improving existing public realm without further expense and disruption.

Waverley/Calton ‘catalyst area’

We look forward to further details on the proposed pedestrian route between St James and St Andrew Square via the Dunard Centre. Closure of Waverley Bridge to vehicles should help improve bus and tram journey times on Princes Street, and enhance the experience of arriving in the city centre by rail. The proposed vertical links should be properly maintained and supervised so that they remain clean and functional.

Other priorities for action

We believe the city centre public realm is badly affected by the near constant cycle of road closures, construction activity, utility works, rigging and de-rigging for temporary events etc. We suggest that there should be fewer, better managed events. We also suggest that a higher bar be set for gaining permission to develop – so that development only takes place if it delivers demonstrable social value and/or cultural significance. There could also be better co-ordination by the Council of minor works so that disruption is minimised.

The Council should develop a policy on disruption, stating what level it considers necessary and/or desirable, and consult on its conclusions.

We believe it is important that the city retains full responsibility for all public realm and is able to maintain and conserve it from within its own funding. We do not believe it should cede any element of this to commercial partners such as Essential Edinburgh or the Quaich project. We do not believe it is right for influence over the management of civic assets to pass to third parties beyond democratic accountability in this way.

Proper management of licensing would also help to improve the public realm, and quality of life for residents, particularly by adopting a more rigorous approach to the problem of over-provision of licensed premises.

Next steps  

In developing these outline ambitions into more detailed plans, we agree that changes should actually “celebrate and enhance the unique character of Edinburgh’s built and natural environment” (as the Council says it intends) and avoid the risk of tawdry commercialisation, or projects which fail to meet the quality standards promised at the outset.

Some schemes now getting under way such as the Waverley Station Masterplan, plans for Waverley Market and the proposals for West Princes Street Gardens appear to have at least the potential to damage Edinburgh’s built heritage through excessive or insensitive development. If the essentially 19th century character of central Edinburgh is compromised, the coherence of the area – a key cultural and economic asset – will be lost.

We believe that the preservation of existing high-quality public realm such as Princes Street Gardens is more important than developing new spaces. Unless these other schemes are very carefully managed they may detract from the improvements envisaged in the current proposals.

We believe the Council should aim to achieve a better balance between the visitor economy and other economic activities. Failing to do so may militate against the standard of public realm and the city’s future economic prospects, and could impact on its ability to sustain a permanent residential population. For the current proposals to succeed, we believe it will be necessary to get this balance right.