Insult to Injury

Edinburgh Trams - Not travelling down Leith Walk in 2014Leith Walk and Constitution Street have indeed suffered from the trams over the past five years. We’ve lost the bronze pigeons, Sherlock Holmes, quite a few businesses have closed down…. it’s a mess. Edinburgh Council has a vision and 3.4 million, which carefully and sensibly spent might make this one of the finest streets in Edinburgh. (But who trusts the council to spend sensibly and with regard for what people want?)

Besides, there’s a million pounds worth of work to be done fixing the roads before the “vision” work can start.

I wrote in March:

Leith Walk is one of the most characterful, the richest in variety and busy with local businesses and people who live and work there. I want Edinburgh Council to treasure what the city has. I don’t believe they do.

Ray Perman wrote in May last year:

The Walk is wide enough to have a broad central reservation with shrubs and trees – like the one which runs along the broader part of East Claremont Street. But what do we have instead? The cheapest, nastiest black rubber blocks, bolted together. If they weren’t ugly enough, they are flanked by unnecessary white lines, hatched on the road. For what? To deter motorists from parking in the middle of the road?

The whole effect is ghastly, but just think what Leith Walk could become. With imagination and a little money, it could again be an elegant thoroughfare with broad pavements, street cafés, trees and shrubs. It is the most multicultural street in Edinburgh and could also be the most cosmopolitan.

The Walk had to put up with two years of disruption while the street was torn up for the trams which – thanks to the council’s incompetence – will now probably never traverse it. It deserves better than the fate the council has decreed for it.

Richard Dowsett, owner of Leith Cycles, said in March it is “getting increasingly hazardous” to cycle on Leith Walk.

I cycle up and down Leith Walk myself, and it really is an unpleasant experience. It’s not too bad if you’re an experienced cyclist and you know how to hop and jump and weave and avoid things, but not great for less experienced cyclists who either get upset by it or frightened by it – and ultimately put off by it. It’s a shame because it’s a big wide road, with lots of space and people should be able to cycle up it quite happily. I don’t understand why it’s in quite such a state in a city that is supposed to be one of the top cities in Europe.

Well, primarily because Edinburgh Council don’t really care about Leith Walk. As they’ve been evidencing for quite some time.

Richard Dowsett said:

“I’d like the council to think about the term integrated transport. That involves everything from feet to rubber. If you’re going to integrate everything that means you need to have a space for people to walk on, a space for people to park on, a space for people to cycle on safely, and a space for people to drive on. That room is there. Try and make that happen as much as possible. Don’t try and mix cars and bikes together because it doesn’t work, especially in Britain where people are less forgiving, and make the road surfaces better. There are supposed to be cycle lanes. If there’s a bit of green tarmac then it shouldn’t stop and then turn into a massive lot of potholes, and then some ruts, and then another bit of green tarmac. We have to make sure we get the road right.”

Common sense.

Leith Walk is actually one of the few roads in Edinburgh broad enough that there is room for multiple lanes – space for bikes, for buses, for cars, for pedestrians. Even for a tramline. Though despite everything Gordon MacKenzie said… no trams.

The Sugacane franchise in Shandwick Place had to close down not long ago, because the disruption caused by the tram works meant the shop couldn’t survive. A familiar story in Leith Walk, but this adds insult to injury:

Just months after handing back the keys, blaming the ongoing disruption of the trams works for ruining business, their former shop is set to be taken over by a new tenant – a taxpayer-funded “Tram Shop”.

In a move described as “ludicrous”, the new occupants of No 6 Shandwick Place can be revealed today, along with the £160,000 price tag of setting up the drop-in information centre.

Up to six customer service staff will be based at the shop to answer queries and offer information on the scheme.

They will also deal with complaints, but a spokesman insisted there would be no toughened glass screens or “danger money” for operating in the area worst hit by the ongoing works.

Officials said there would be talks and exhibitions on the trams, and insisted the maroon-painted shop would be a focal point for the project. Local businesses had requested an “increased presence” in the area, they said.

Not according to Michael Apter, chairman of the West End Association, said:

“A presence on the ground might have been requested, but that was as much about managing the site. There’s a Lothian Buses shop just across the road – I don’t know why they couldn’t just have put a desk in there.”

Edinburgh Council will pay £30K a year for the lease. Fit-out work is expected to cost £100,000. The Edinburgh Trams Shop is scheduled to open in mid-June. If the fit-out takes longer and costs more than estimated, Gordon MacKenzie – if he’s still on the Council – will doubtless publish a new schedule of costs and a new opening date and blandly announce that the Shop will open ahead of schedule and under budget.

The shop will remain open, costing £30,000 a year, until the trams start running.


Gordon MacKenzie told the BBC last October:

“We were not people who had previously had experience of major projects like this. I look back and I’m sure the inquiry will look at this, and my feeling is that we probably didn’t have the right skill mix. Not to say that any individual was lacking in a particular way but you know I think we were put together for political purposes as much as anything else.”

The closest any trams will get to Leith
The closest any trams will get to Leith – the two that were on display at Ocean Terminal for a while

One of the candidates standing in Southside/Newington is a man with the right skill set, and though his focus has been on the statutory notices scandal, Gordon Murdie admits:

I wish I could have seen what the councillors saw five years ago. Not the glossy Edinburgh Transport Review but the contract and the estimates. Asking the right questions, challenging and analysing the answers, delivering the right solutions on budget… it’s what I do.

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