Report on the meeting of the Elected Member Short-life Working Group on Tourism and Communities, Business Centre, City Chambers, 8 May 2019.

At the invitation of Cllr Donald Wilson, Convenor of Culture and Communities, a meeting was held with the Council’s short-life working group looking into the issues arising from tourism as it affects residents. This meeting was part of a wider information-gathering process and participants were invited fromCommunity Councils and Tenants’ and Residents’ Groups. The working group was particularly interested in hearing from groups in the City Centre, West End, Old Town, Leith, Portobello and Queensferry. Representatives from Community Councils in these areas attended, as well as others from Trinity, Colinton, Drum Brae, Gorgie/Dalry, along with representatives from Edinburgh Old Town Development Trust and the Grassmarket Residents’ Association, as well as individual residents of the Old Town.

Because more people turned up than had apparently registered (though all with legitimate interests and concerns) the meeting got off to a slightly chaotic start and the oral contributions as per the remit were limited to two minutes each. This gave little room for elaboration on the points and concerns, and I got the feeling that ­ whether founded or not ­ development of the points raised was not always what some of the Committee members actually wanted to hear.

The background information to the meeting supplied in advance by the Working Group began by stating, ‘tourism in Edinburgh contributes in excess of £2.6 billion per year to the city economy and supports around 40,000 jobs. Edinburgh is the UK’s premier tourist destination outside of London, attracting a record 2.5 million visitors in 2018,’ and acknowledged that ‘however, for some people, especially those living in the City Centre and Old Town, tourism presents a number of challenges.’ Interestingly, we were told that evidence gathered ‘will help shape strategies and initiatives aimed at managing tourism in the city and seek a balance between the demands of visitors and the needs of residents.’ Without being overly psychological about the above statement, it is noted that ‘theneeds of residents’ comes after ‘the demands of visitors’, so revealing the true priorities of the Council…

The background briefing also included the following: ‘key groups and organisations are invited to provide both written and verbal evidence on the matter of tourism and residents. The working group is interested in objective, quantifiable and verifiable information rather than anecdotal evidence. This include statistics; photographic evidence; surveys, quantified reports, research, or investigations.’

On the one hand, the kind of evidence favoured by the Council appears to be reasonable, but I would contest is ill-thought out. The value of ‘anecdotal evidence’ should never be diminished as it comes from ‘lived experience’. This, decision-makers would be well-advised not to dismiss. More importantly, organisations such as Community Councils are staffed by volunteers and do not have large(!) numbers of data-gatherers or data-crunchers.

It will come as no surprise that the main issues raised included short-term lets and the hollowing out of huge areas of the Old Town where many flats have become often unlicensed private businesses, the growth of hotels and apart-hotels and student residences which are used in vacation time as holiday lets too. This creates associated noise for residents and additional pressure on council services (refuse collection and street-cleaning, for example. These services are not paid for by the private owners of these student residences whose businesses are not within the non-domestic rating system.) Several residents in and around the Grassmarket highlighted their experience of disrupted sleep on a regular basis. But as this is merely anecdotal evidence… The berthing of huge cruise ships at South Queensferry and the transferring of large numbers of tourists from these through the village on their way into Edinburgh is a particular problem not often mentioned in this context.

While it was acknowledged generally that tourism in Edinburgh is important to our economy, it is obvious that a breaking-point has been reached, but interestingly towards the end of the meeting when the idea of a policy of ‘no more growth’ was suggested, it was clear from the responses of some Councillors that this was anathema!

Iain Black