Monday, 28 May 2012

A Vision for Leith Walk

Leith Walk has had a hard time of it lately with the scars of abortive Tram works all too visible along with gap tooth development sites stalled due to the economic downturn. All this could lead to a gloomy and downcast future for 'the Walk'. 
The fallout of the tram stopping at York Place means that later this year reinstatement works will begin to reinstate Leith Walk to what was there prior to the incursions of the Tram works. This in practical terms means replacing what are temporary traffic lights at various junctions, repairing foot-ways and the road itself which is in a terrible condition. All well a good but shouldn't the vision be raised? If Trams ain't coming any time soon can something more inspiring not be done?
These are the questions that are being asked by the local community council, the Leith Business Association (formed largely by Leith Walk traders), Greener Leith, Leith Open Space and a variety of other organisations and individuals.
Leith Walk has had a number of things 'done' to it over the years - most well intentioned but often with little or absolutely no consultation with locals and also little in the way of sustainability (remember when Lothian Regional Council put in trees but with no budget for maintenance many struggled to find water and died - thankfully this was later rectified and those that remain are liked). Because the rectifying works won't start until the end of the year these is an opportunity to pause and do that rare thing, consult on the aspirations for Leith walk so that even the most practical of reinstatement works can have an eye to the future and hopefully allow an organic development of the street to make it a great place to be.
That pre planning was kicked off a month or so ago when the Leith Neighbourhood Partnership held its last Public Meeting on the subject of Leith Walk. There was a presentation by Riccardo Marini the Council's Design Leader on place making which strayed far from the usual kind of presentation citizens are used to from Council officials. A lively discussion flowed from that and at the back of the hall there was a small interim exhibition from 'Sustainable Transformations' from students of Edinburgh University's Advanced Sustainable Design Masters Program.

Tomorrow night the 'Sustainable Transformations' exhibition will open at Out of The Blue in Dalmeny Street. Greener Leith have said that they hope that the exhibition will 'stimulate and provoke a debate as to what a future Leith could be.' The future of Leith Walk, which was described in charettes (planning workshops) for the Leith Area Development Framework as a 'Great City Street', is central to that. Some have likened Leith walk to the Ramblas in Barcelona and as a place to be, a place to visit, a place to live, work and socialise Leith Walk could lay claim to be one of the distinctive streets of the world. It certainly has a lot going on with the micro arts festival 'Leith Late' centring its events there next month. 

Sustainable Transformations will be followed up on June 5th by a meeting jointly organised by Greener Leith and Leith Open Space entitled 'Your Vision for Leith Walk' again at Out of the Blue from 6pm until 9pm. It is envisaged that this meeting will allow locals to have their voice and their ideas heard in creating a vision for the Walk.
There is a real opportunity to shape the future of Leith Walk both for those that live and work locally and for those who visit to shop or socialise there. Get involved in these discussions (the Leith Neigbourhood Partnership will be holding another meeting on this subject at a later date) and help put the great into Leith Walk.

Updates: the Edinburgh Eye blog has more on this issue and a good graphic of Leith & Leith Walk showing linkages and communities of interest.
Couple of thoughts that have come to me after writing this blog - traffic management - should a separate cycle lane be put in for the length of Leith Walk keeping cyclists safe a separate from motor vehicles? Can this and option of future rapid transit link to tram be 'future-proofed'? (to minimise future installation disruption). Public Square - Is there an option of creating a public square at Shrubhill where there are two large stalled development projects - potential to create a 'heart' or middle to Leith Walk. Could be a carbon gain from a site long associated with old diesel buses and a long lost petrol station. trees and a gathering point, potential for street performance, markets, life! 

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Renewing Local Democracy?

There is a consensus that turnout in local elections is not high enough - the recent Scottish Council Elections achieved a 38% turnout - and as a result many a think-tank is putting their pointy brains in gear to come up with solutions.

The latest is Reform Scotland who have raised the thorny issue of reducing the number of Councils making them more powerful by taking on some of the roles carried out by quangoes, strengthening community councils, creating area committees and, oh yes, elected 'Mayors'. Much of this is worthy and worth debate but is any of it the antidote to public engagement or low electoral turnout? Sadly I think not. It seems to me that Reform have gathered together a number of things that may or may not need fixing but are essentially about how local democracy is managed and therefore about as sexy as a managerial textbook (apologies to all the managers out there - you do a great job really, those textbooks paid off). 

Before I go through the document 'Renewing Local Government' a quick declaration - I've been a member of a political party for 26 years and was an elected councillor for 12 years and when not standing for election myself have been either an election agent or a activist knocking doors. I've seen how political parties engage and how the voters engage both at election time and in between.

The headline issue of reducing the number of Councils is one area that I don't have much of a problem with in principle and there seems to be some merit is what is proposed in Reform Scotland's report. It's a debate that needs to be had though if Councils were to actually arrive at a radical shared services agenda this might not be needed. The option of reduction might act as both carrot and stick to get Councils speaking to one another to progress shared services which at present can be best described as stalled or becalmed. Bottom line though is that the size of a Council will not in itself encourage more public engagement or drive up turnout at elections. Reorganisation is the bureaucracy that delivers the services that the citizens need and demand.

Another area where I would applaud Reform is in raising the issue of power over local services. Since devolution there has been a tendency for the Scottish Government to direct or take over certain functions - see Police and Fire. There was always a fear that devolution would lead to the Parliament taking over local services. In reality with Scottish Ministers of whatever stripe hold local authorities to account - they provide the lions share of the money after all - it was and is really up to local government to raise its game and demonstrate sound management alongside dynamic thinking to improve delivery and outcomes of local services. Still a debate would be useful to clear the air and set down markers.  

Reform spend some time in their report calling for a beefing up of Community Councils and a devolving of powers to them to empower them and make them more attractive for a wider cross section of their local community to actually get involved. It is a general truism that Community Councillors are rarely elected as they rarely achieve the number of nominations that would trigger an election and the electorate having to choose who would represent them on the Community Council. It would be interesting to see what turnout would be in these elections as while some electors might struggle to name their local authority councillors I'd hazard a guess they would be totally flummoxed if asked to name their community councillors and consequently even less likely to vote. Don't get me wrong I think community councils are a good thing but I think there is a huge variation in their representativeness and their effectiveness. One area where they can and some do have an influence is over planning. As a former member of a Planning Committee I know first hand how the committee members can be persuaded by a well made argument for or against a planning proposal from a community council.

Linked to more powers to community councils Reform also put forward the idea of 'area committees'. These already exist in a range of rural and rural/urban authorities and in cities like Edinburgh there are now well established 'Local Neighbourhood Partnerships' which are local community planning partnerships involving Police, NHS, Community Councils and others (in the case of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership this includes the Fire service, Port of Leith Housing Association, Voluntary Organisations and Forth Ports) along with the locally elected councillors. As effectively consultative committees of the Council they agree a local community plan and inform delivery of local services. There is a case to made that these should be beefed up and given more powers particularly spending powers.

The other 'innovation' that Reform are keen on is the issue of elected 'Mayors' (their term - I know in Scotland we have Provosts not Mayors). They say these elected figureheads would have real power to lead Councils and make decisions. Great. Only one or maybe two or three problems. If they have lots of power where does that power come from? Is it to be devolved down from the Parliament - there may be a case for that and Reform do say elsewhere in the document that they want more powers devolved Councils (transferred from quangos or boards). That then begs the question of who has the power - the Mayor or the Council? And where does that leave the area committees and the empowered Community Councils? Can the Mayor overrule the all of these layers?   Getting back to Reforms initial point about driving up voter turnout. If we look at the recent London Mayoral election are there pointers there as to whether elected Mayors are the way to go? Well as an observer rather than a participant I'd say what Londoners got was a pretty poor contest between two 'personalities' where if there was a debate on policy issues it passed me by pretty comprehensively. In terms of turnout the Mayoral contest was a turn-off with only 38% of the London electorate turning out to vote. Hang on a minute 38% that's the same as the turnout in the Scottish local government elections! So having mayoral contests even between household names like Boris Johnston and Ken Livingstone does not one hot electoral contest make.

Again I come back to the view that worthy though some of Reforms ideas are none of them are likely to set the heather on fire with the electorate. None of them are likely to lead to the increase in voter turnout that they are hoping for. None of them are in my view likely to lead to more engagement and involvement from the electorate in local democracy. Sad to say its at worst rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic and at best it's some ways of managing or arranging local democracy that may or may not be worthy of debate.

However I will conclude by thanking Reform for getting my thinking engaged on the subject of local democracy and electoral engagement. I've got more to say on the issue but will save that for another day.

Rob is a former convener of Leith Neighbourhood Partnership and was a member of the SNP Local Government Committee from 1996-2003.

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Boardwalk Empire Anyone?

Rob Munn reports on a radical new proposal for the Water of Leith Basin

Pardon the title! I'm not likening the Shore to hit US TV show Boardwalk Empire but Sandport Boadwalk is the working title for a plan to change the Water of Leith basin as we know it.
Some years back a company called Water of Leith 2000 put forward plans for barges along the shore line for use as houseboats. However the plans changed to office use and today the barges moored between Malmaison and the Ship on the Shore house a variety of offices.

Expansion of this scheme upstream through the inner basin and on to Bonnington weir at the Quilts had so far not materialised. Water of Leith 2000 put their property (the shoreline on both sides) up for sale by auction in 2009 but failed to find a single bidder.
Recently it was revealed that Water of Leith 2000 had changed into Bluefield and that a new plan was in the offing. Friends of the Water of Leith Basin made contact and suggested that once they had some ideas to share they would be happy to host a presentation at one of their meetings. On 4th April as part of a General Meeting of FoWL.B a presentation was made of the proposal 'Sandport Boardwalk' by well known Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser. It was tentative - Malcolm had only got involved about a week before the meeting. He stressed that what was proposed would balance commercial use (that's the bit that will make the proposal economically viable) and public space (the boardwalk bit). There are no definite plans yet and planning permission will have to be sought and further detailed public consultation would be required.
Concerns were raised at the meeting regarding visual impact, the consequences of changing the Shore in this way, practicalities such as access and increased pressure on parking in the area. As the proposed structures are intended to float as the barges do it was pointed out that the silting up of the inner basin could scupper the plans. Another concern was the effect of 'deadening' the Shore - before the barges went in people used to spill out of the bars and restaurants on the Shore on warm summer days and evenings animating the area in a social way. By contrast while the office barges are visually interesting their effect creates a barrier between the shore and the Water of Leith. This could be the effect of the what is being proposed for the upper reaches though to be fair the boardwalk could alleviate this effect by allowing people to walk around these units.
The plans need to be fully fleshed out before being exposed to full public scrutiny and consultation. I certainly want to see more about what these structures would look like and how they might look on the Leith Shore. It may be that some of it will find support and some of it won't. Malcolm Fraser is a renowned architect and capable of coming up with something interesting and challenging. Interestingly there were other locally based architects present at the meeting perhaps most notably Groves Raines Architects who have recent restored Lamb's House as a home and working architects office. Their response at this initial stage seemed to sit between lukewarm and hostile.
The Council has recently spent a lot of public money improving the road, footways and general public realm at the Shore and it looks fantastic. These plans could change the whole look of those improvements and it could be argued exploit this public investment for private gain.
One thing is clear - more public debate is needed on these proposals and much more detail of what is proposed needs to come into the public domain to allow as full a discussion as possible. There will be great interest in these proposals as the plans come forward and the public debate will be lively.
The Friends of the Water of Leith Basin are to be thanked for organising this initial presentation on Bluefield's proposals.

An earlier version of this article appeared on

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Welcome to Leith Notes. I plan to post here regularly and irregularly mainly about Leith because that's where I live but I expect I will post on wider matters of interest to me. The view of a resident of Leith on Leith, Edinburgh, Scotland, Europe and the world. A view of the world from Leith.