It’s more vital than ever before that we get behind our great city centres

Suffice to say no one needs me to remind everyone (again) of the issues facing Edinburgh’s city centre throughout this pandemic. The loss of established retailers, the reduced opening hours of our hospitality businesses, the empty beds in our hotels, the disappearance of the tourism sector and the thousands of office based workers doing their roles from home are all contributing factors.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh
Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh

The vast majority of decisions taken by politicians both local and national since March have had the wellbeing and public health of our population rightly at the forefront of their minds and I do not for one minute envy the task they have faced. However as time has progressed there has been muddled and confused thinking about the COVID safety of the city centre and its importance for the city recovery.

The shop local campaigns being promoted locally and nationally are based on two contentious and very arguable facts. Namely that it is safer to shop in local town centres such as Stockbridge and Morningside than it is on Princes Street, and it is more important to save business and jobs in Corstorphine and Leith than it is on George Street. This is not an either or situation, every business and job in the city needs support but our politicians, maybe with a national election in May and a divided City Chambers sees political mileage in aligning themselves away from the city centres.

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Once we start recovering from this pandemic we need both bustling local communities and a vibrant city centre. A thriving city centre will sustain thousands of Edinburgh resident’s jobs, support supply chains throughout the Lothians and attract visitors back to our great city. This will not just happen by accident because we have superb heritage, world class attractions and Festivals, as well as a fantastic hospitality and retail offer. We need to be prepared to actively go out and market our city. We need to support our airport to return and grow routes, we need to acknowledge that Edinburgh is the gateway to the whole of Scotland for our tourist economy, and that we are in a highly competitive market.

No one has a good enough crystal ball to say exactly when the recovery will gain pace, but when it does we as a city need to be ready. Our new city wide tourism strategy address issues of sustainability, climate change, seasonal differences and many other factors but it doesn’t as yet adequately address the how. Never has the need for an effective organisation to look ahead and address how we are going to manage and market the tourism sector been more apparent and more desperately needed. Other cities around the world that had growing and vibrant tourism sectors pre COVID such as Edinburgh will be doing exactly this and preparing to re-open. Of course, this can and should be in a forward looking and a better way, addressing some of our failings but building on our strengths of which this great city has many.

I worry that as a city we are becoming complacent and simply think that our retail, tourism and hospitality sectors will come back. Yes, they will in time but unfortunately no one can say if this will be at the same level as previously, and if so when. The many Edinburgh residents that rely on these sectors for their livelihoods, and the concerned business owners that have built up profitable businesses over the years to see them now in trouble, will not be comforted by the complacency of our local and national politicians – we need actions plans and tangible ways to support city centres and the tourism sectors, much in the way that our vital food and drink sector recently received government support.

Roddy Smith, CEO Essential Edinburgh

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