Public Services and Spaces Belong to the City's People

There is a growing problem in Edinburgh with public space being increasingly used for private profit. Free access to parks and the use of urban space for public benefit are fundamental components of our citizens’ “right to the city”.

It is completely unacceptable for Princes Street Gardens, the heart of our City, to be blocked off by boards or curtains while metal barriers are put up in the middle of our pavements on Princes Street, pushing residents and tourists on to the road due to overcrowding and being denied access to our public benches. There is an immense lack of disability access for disabled people and barriers on the street is increasing the problem which needs to be addressed urgently.

If the promoters want to have their event in our Princes Street Gardens then they (and the Council) need to accept it has to be an event for public benefit with full public access without barriers of access in place. If they want their event to be private, then they should hire a hall or stadium, there are plenty of wonderful venues in Edinburgh to choose from.

Princes Street Gardens is a civic space, a place of tranquillity for many from the hustle and bustle of our capital city of Scotland and for those who do not have their own private gardens. This is a place for people to rest, to think and to enjoy the city they live in, work in and contribute to. Most of all, it belongs to the people.

If Edinburgh council is determined to keep increasing the use of public spaces for private benefit, then the council needs to seriously consider reducing council tax every August for all residents as compensation for loss of public benefit and access.

Why should residents be forced to pay more council tax for less public benefit and access because the Edinburgh council has chosen to commercialise more public space for private benefit? It is our job as public servants to protect public assets, space, benefit, access and services in the public interest on behalf of the people we serve.

For example, it would be immensely interesting to hear what the council considered as public benefit for the recently tabled plans to convert a public owned A-listed building of the former offices of Edinburgh City Council into 24 serviced holiday apartments. It is time for the council to reassess their priorities by putting the public’s interest first and foremost when dealing with public assets and spaces because, again, it belongs to the people.

I appreciate Edinburgh receives more than 4 million international visitors a year, but should the Scottish Government finally empower the Edinburgh Council to introduce a Tourist Tax Levy, this would raise an estimated £14.6m a year, which can be used to support the cost of mass tourism to the city, instead of expecting the local residents to pay for extra services needed every August.

Scottish councils receive 85% of their funding from the Scottish Government which receives the bulk of its funding from the UK Government. According to COSLA, which represents Scottish local authorities, funding for local government decreased ten times faster (4%) than funding for the Scottish Government (0.4%) in the past five years.

It is time for the Scottish Government to recognise that Councillors throughout Scotland have not been elected by the public to be forced to make eye-watering cuts to our much-needed public services (Edinburgh Council was forced to make £28m in “savings” for this year alone) due to the Scottish Government’s political choice to pass on disproportionate cuts instead of fair funding to the local government.

Otherwise, perhaps the Scottish Government should consider explaining to the people why it is in the public’s interest for their decision to not pass on the same percentage of cuts as the UK Government do which then leaves Scottish councils with no choice but to go down the unsustainable route of using public spaces for private benefit or sell public assets to “maximise income” to deliver essential front-line services, or even worse, cut essential services because there is nothing else left to cut. After all, Scottish Ministers are public servants too.

It will go a long way in making Edinburgh, as well as the rest of Scotland, a fairer place for all.

Published in the Edinburgh Evening News | 26th August 2019