I have had a long love affair with Edinburgh. I recall many visits as a child, looking up at the castle, visiting the museum and eating sticks of Edinburgh Rock (an acquired taste). I was lucky to spend my final year of school just outside the city and then I spent four glorious years there as an undergraduate before returning to teach at the University of Edinburgh for a further eight years. Since then, any excuse finds me in Scotland’s capital. But over the years things between us have not been as cordial and a visit last week has killed my passion. I fear the relationship may be over.
When I was an undergraduate, Edinburgh was once described in the student newspaper as “a woman who powders her face but forgets to wipe her bottom”. This was a reference to the considerable beauty of the city but the poorly treated effluent that the city poured into the Firth of Forth. The effluent problem has been solved and it seems that while Edinburgh now wipes its bottom, it forgets to powder its face. The city, frankly, is a mess.
One of my favourite approaches to the High Street (more famously known as the Royal Mile), between the magnificent Edinburgh Castle at the top and the historic Holyrood Palace at the foot, is up Fleshmarket Close. The ‘closes’ of Edinburgh are historic sets of steep steps which join the lower levels of Edinburgh to the High Street; they feature in the tales of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ian Rankin used the name as a title for one of his novels.
Fleshmarket Close has two famous pubs: the Halfway House (which is half way up) and the Jinglin’ Geordie, named due to the ‘jingling’ of the bottles and glasses when, nearby, the Scotsman newspaper presses rolled in the evening. The Scotsman is long gone but the pubs remain, and the steps are still used. However, walking up the close is now treacherous. There is a resident scrounger at the foot (I have watched them ‘changing shifts’; it’s a scam) and then a cascade of rubbish to negotiate which includes cans, bottles and discarded food containers, many with food still in them. The smell is ghastly. The nearby Scotsman Steps also has a cascade, but it is a liquid one and it is not water. The smell is ghastly. The permanent and increasing piles of rubbish in the closes of Edinburgh’s Old Town have been described by residents as a “fire waiting to happen”.
Clearly, Edinburgh City Council is not spending much of its £11.24 billion budget keeping the city clean. So, what is it spending its money on?
First, we have the trams. Edinburgh disposed of its original trams in 1956. Then early in the new century, the City Council decided to reintroduce trams to the city centre. Few in Edinburgh wanted them; massive disruption was expected and delivered. By way of final insult, originally tipped to be a new route to Edinburgh Airport, the trams went nowhere useful. Essentially, when first built, they went from one end of the main street – Princes Street – to the other. If you stand at one end of Princes Street, you can easily see the other end. The City Council was eventually persuaded to extend the line to the airport, but the first phase of the project – described as ‘hell on wheels’ – was delivered £375 million over budget. And they are not finished yet, a further £207.3 million has been spent extending the line to Newhaven. Adding insult to the injury inflicted on the Edinburgh council tax payers the city has launched an inquiry into the tram construction project at a cost of £13 million to which a further £100,000 has just been allocated.
Then we have the cycle lanes. This £19.4 million project (but watch this space), due for completion in 2023 (again, watch this space), began last year. Again, disruption was expected and is being delivered. With the combination of tramways, widened pavements and cycle lanes in addition to bus lanes which operate for most of the day, traffic everywhere is reduced to single lanes. Remarkably, traffic can still penetrate the inner reaches of Edinburgh; but drivers spend increasing amounts of time stationary and the frustration among drivers who make incredibly slow progress through the city is palpable. On a recent visit, I saw many illegal U-turns and right turns accompanied by a cacophony of horns as drivers looked for shortcuts. Needless to say, this is all in the name of climate change as explained by the (deep breath) Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings, Active Travel and Tenants’ Rights, Patrick Harvie MSP:
We are committed to becoming a Net Zero city by 2030 and a key element of this is encouraging and supporting clean and sustainable modes of transport through projects like this.
I spoke to three cycling colleagues about the cycle lanes and none of them were in favour. Apparently one major thoroughfare into the city, in addition to all the above lanes, also has a lane for walking with a cycle. That thoroughfare is now a logjam. The construction of the lanes is unsafe and is leading to accidents among cyclists (one of my colleagues’ wives went over her handlebars) and that is over and above cycling accidents involving tram tracks which have cost the city £1.2 million in compensation.
The final word should go to the long suffering residents of Leith Walk. Once a wide and busy traffic thoroughfare, long ago this was the site of an unfathomable system of multi-coloured lines indicating where cars could park, not park, drop off/pick up and give way to buses. This is now another mass of widened pavements, bus lanes, tram tracks and now cycle lanes. But these are not just any cycle lane, they are ‘zig-zag’ cycle lanes. Described as ‘moronic’, these have been ridiculed by residents, have been the cause of one serious cycling accident (referred to above) and, despite promises by the council in 2022 to ‘make changes’, they are still there.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry. He writes in a personal capacity.