Development, Edinburgh, Edinburgh Evening News, Edinburgh Tourism, Edinburgh University, George Square, Irvine Welsh, Modernity, Opinion, Planning Laws, Politics, Professor Richard Williams, Urban Regeneration
Professor Richard J. Williams teaches art history at the University of Edinburgh and his latest article in America’s Foreign Policy magazine has boomeranged back across the Atlantic. “…the state of the city needs to be talked about frankly,” Williams last night told STV in response to the gales of outrage which have greeted his piece. The headlines have muddied the water, with FP itself (rather than Williams) subtitling the article “Scotland’s decaying capital city shows why this country is not ready for independence,” and the Edinburgh Evening News pouncing upon Williams’ reference to a “once great city now in abject decline.” The attendant news coverage gives the impression that Edinburgh has fallen victim to inexplicable abuse from an obscure academic.
The council’s top man Andrew Burns hit back that Williams’ article “Scotch This Plan” was “contradicted by the city’s continued popularity as a visitor destination and the many international awards cementing this reputation.” Councillor Eric Milligan insisted that Edinburgh has “class” and “grandeur,” so that visitors are still “awestruck by its beauty.” The EEN pointed out that Williams’ comments were “nonsense” because “Scotland’s capital is one of the world’s leading visitor destinations…”
Alas, the original article had compared Edinburgh to Venice (i.e. in being a tourist-infested ruin), and so the reaction from the EEN and the hapless councillors does nothing to challenge its line of argument. The EEN likewise maintained that “thousands of students are desperate to come here each year to study,” when Williams’ article explicitly makes an exception of (his employer) Edinburgh University’s ambitious building projects.
Irvine Welsh, who has personally made a fortune from writing about Edinburgh’s dereliction, has the nerve to weigh in, although inconsequentially in the end. Welsh seems to believe that Edinburgh would not have a city council if Scotland was independent, and that the city would be thereby liberated from the councillors who have presided over a “tatty, run-down museum, economically and culturally stagnant, devoid of the vision and focus a true capital city needs.” Still, it’s good to hear from him.
So what of the planning system which “Scotch This Plan” is actually criticising? For all of their indignation, councillors and newspaper editors are not falling over each other in rushing to its defence. The EEN is obliged to tip its hat to a fellow misery-guts, however, and so it concedes that, “Edinburgh needs a leader who can crack heads together, present a vision of the future, and get us all believing that things are good right now and will get ever better.” The EEN’s Martin Hannan finds that, “having read the article, there is very little in it with which I could disagree.”
“Scotch This Plan” offers a seriously valuable analysis and one which deserves to last longer than today’s news cycles. Councillor Burns and his colleagues should memorise this article and carry physical copies of it around with them as Maoist cadres did with the Red Book. The points that Williams makes are at once self-evident and widely disregarded. He evokes a city that “just doesn’t do modern anymore” and remains “terrified of modernization.”
This is a city which is powerless to deliver new and better infrastructure, often because prospective development is stymied by “anxieties about the heritage lobby and middle-class opinion.” Williams is here particularly sound on the question of George Square. Rather than celebrating the felicity of having a campus in the heart of the city and a vibrant student quarter between the Cowgate and the Meadows, bourgeois opinion still regards Basil Spence et al’s (partial) demolition of the Georgian square as nothing short of a crime against humanity. Never mind that there are Georgian squares aplenty in the New Town, which stand mostly in eerie silence, removed from the life of the city. Today’s heritage lobby would have dictated that George Square remain elegantly petrified, rather than providing a workplace for thousands of students.
Despite the power of the heritage lobby, many beautiful historic buildings stand derelict (St Stephen’s Church, the old Odeon cinema, the Tron Kirk), because local enterprises are unable to obtain them and profit from putting them to any practical use. The much-publicised fiasco of the tramworks (which are presently creeping like treacle towards the airport) often eclipses a broader tolerance of obstructed development. Endless consultations and prevarication have set back recorrective work at the St James Centre and Leith Docks, as well as the “So Co” light dentistry which has been due to replace the missing tooth in the Cowgate since 2002.
Williams’ article makes one shudder at the opportunities which have been lost:
It all adds up to one inescapable conclusion: Edinburgh has some of Europe’s shoddiest attempts at urban regeneration. Regeneration is risky, but for mistakes like these to occur in such a wealthy place at the height of an economic boom is, as British architectural critic Owen Hatherley put it, simply a scandal.