A new BID and the vulnerable Underbelly of the Old Town

Old Town resident Janet Dick on the nightime build for Underbelly’s Light Night and the ongoing crisis of Edinburgh’s city centre.

If you live in Edinburgh’s Old Town and getting caught up in Christmas isn’t your thing then you’d better ship out and soon.

Christmas Light Night is coming to the Old Town with promises of a series of long sleepless nights for the people living there. A five-night build and deconstruction will be happening to them between midnight and 5.30am from November 14 to November 18. The business community were notified of this schedule through the not-yet-elected Old Town BID (Original Edinburgh) while residents were provided with a last minute notice omitting reference to the overnight hours… It’s possible that Underbelly have been misled by the now popular myth that nobody lives in The Old Town anymore! But they do and with ever growing difficulty.

It’s not enough that residents struggle to cope with the visiting hordes of tourists on the narrow streets or that holiday-lets have laid claim to the could-be homes next door to their own, this year they’ll have a gang of jolly elves banging and clanging away into the wee small hours!

The city has been given over to a circus.

Despite the damage done to Princes Street Gardens, public opinion, given the popularity of Christmas markets, fairgrounds and large-scale music events, seems firmly on the side of the promoters. Voting with your feet though isn’t always the same as thinking with your head. There is no shortage of evidence showing the harm done to trees, grass, soil, birds, insects, moths, in fact anything organic is damaged from the type of activity we now encourage in our green spaces. It’s not enough that an entire forest of autumn trees is a display worthy of visiting during the daylight hours, an industry is now built around artificially lighting up these wild and natural spaces and charging the people ‘a dollar and a half just to see em’.

So, Christmas Light Night is coming to the Old Town, and who benefits?

According to Underbelly it’s for the XX thousand people who traipse into the city centre to look at it all. Building theme parks in historic, World Heritage sites has become a trend. Our historic streets are revered the world over, but it seems they don’t have enough wow factor to enchant enough people. Not enough anyway to keep the business sector happy. But that’s all about to change; enter Original Edinburgh, the newly named would be, could be Old Town BID. In a recently released statement they claim;

“The overwhelming evidence from across Scotland, the UK and Europe shows us that BIDs are an excellent model for local economic development.”

Try selling that one to the residents and businesses of Grassmarket who lived with a BID for 5 years… it was not a happy cohabitation.

The problem was the ‘f’ word: footfall. Local businesses complained there weren’t enough people in the area; strange since there are around 600 residents living above their cafes bars and shops… Ok so the problem was really the ‘c’ word: customers. Apparently, customers weren’t visiting the area because they didn’t appreciate what a fabulous selection of goods and services were on offer. The obvious solution to this ‘f’ and ‘c’ problems was to entice them with events, for that read ‘any old-kind of event’. For 5 years residents lived with a broad range of musical styles and entertainments accompanying marathons, markets, fashion parades, Victorian dramas, Christmas fairs, pagan extravaganzas and anything else that brought crowds of people into the area on the off-chance that they’d be interested in buying a hat!

All of this took place on the misnamed Public Space since the entire area had been declared an Events Space. Licenses and permits to put up and take down tents, caravans, stalls and Santa Claus trucks were granted willy-nilly and the people trying to live there had to put up or f**k off and live somewhere else. As far as the business community were concerned all this singing and dancing for 5 years made not a whit of difference to their profit margins, they weren’t happy with the show either. Forced to pay a levy to the BID and with little influence over how it was spent many businesses protested (albeit a lot less noisily than the residents) and at the end of the 5-year period of office the Greater Grassmarket BID failed. The attempts to revive an Old Town BID have taken 2 years, during which time the residents of Grassmarket have enjoyed a period of relative calm…

The Greater Grassmarket BID didn’t give a s**t about how much noise they made or how upset the residents were because their express purpose was to look after the businesses. And there was never any promise of anything other­ than that because a BID is exclusively about the benefits to the business community. The future for residents in the Old Town will not be good or ever any better unless their needs are prioritised. Any talk about ‘compromise’ or ‘balance’ needs to go; put people first and you’ll be amazed at the benefits to EVERYBODY.

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