When I was a trainee lawyer, almost 25 years ago, I would walk with my boss, carrying his papers, from a legal office on Queen Street, up to the Courts in the Old Town. He once said to me, as we walked eastwards along Princes Street, "Richard, look left, and you could be on any high street in the UK; look right, and you can only be in one place in the whole World." That statement, is, without doubt, unequivocally true and in Edinburgh, there is a phenomenal opportunity to be seized.
But, as outlined in Scotland's Urban Age II – a major academic study of the AGE cities – Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh – a number of contributing factors ranging from the pandemic to the accelerating net zero carbon agenda, mean the success of our cities requires some radical new thinking.
The report – commissioned by Brodies, Anderson Anderson & Brown and Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh Chambers of Commerce- states that the centripetal position of the AGE cities means that they have been hit hardest by the CV19 pandemic, which hollowed out shared spaces, devastated high streets and accelerated societal change. In response, the report makes several recommendations based on the key themes of developing our human capital, climate leadership, city centre regeneration, flexibility within planning frameworks and the reshaping of business rates.
The overall driver from the authors of the SUA II was that our cities need to be empowered to respond to local needs and opportunities. Funding will be key in that regard and the report recommends that devolving meaningful tax raising and other fiscal powers to our cities would allow for the delivery of programmes that reflect those local needs. That, of course is a discussion for our policymakers.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Looking around Edinburgh just now there are a number of significant developments that align with the themes of the report. Housing developments continue to come forward within the city, the suburbs and in the vicinity of the bypass. Office developments, like our own new office at Capital Square, are responding to needs around the way we work, wellness and the drive towards net zero carbon emissions. And in retail, the St James Quarter has got off to an encouraging start, attracting new entrants to the Scottish retail market, as well as relocating occupiers from other parts of the city centre.
And that takes me back to Princes Street, which is Edinburgh's flagship. Paris has the Champs-Élysées, where retail is "experiential" with flagship stores interspersed with hotels and leisure offerings, and apartments too. We should be ambitious – Princes Street could have a similar offering; and be in that same echelon.
Those positive effects will ripple out across the city, and beyond. The principal beneficiaries will be the stakeholders of Edinburgh – the residents, the businesses and the people who work in those businesses.
With offices in all three of the AGE cities, at Brodies we are acutely aware, not only of the challenges that each city faces, but also the importance of their success to the national economy. The AGE cities need to be vibrant places for people to live, work and visit. There is now a collective responsibility to implement the recommendations of Scotland's Urban Age II through collaboration, investment and commitment. And we want to play our part.
This article first appeared in The Scotsman on 13 June 2022.