JOHN McGURK: A LESSON IN PEOPLE POWER VERSUS PROFIT

JOHN MCGURK

The struggle of small retail businesses fighting against being squeezed out of existence has never been more apparent as high streets everywhere are now dominated by takeaways, sandwich shops, express supermarkets, charities and overpriced coffee bars.

This is why organisations known as Business Improvement Districts or BIDS have been springing up around the country with a brief to breathe new life into shopping areas which have seen better days by attracting customers away from the one-stop retail parks.

Such an organisation exists in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket which, as regular ScotBuzz readers may know, wanted to turn this historic world heritage site into a Christmas frenzy by erecting a giant Ferris wheel and other fairground rides, along with German sausage and mulled wine stalls operating from 10am till 10pm every day throughout December.

For those folk who live in Grassmarket, this plan was their worst nightmare because they already know how their lives turn to misery during the fringe festival when the square is transformed into a public stage for every itinerant trick cyclist, flame-throwing juggler and amplified busker who hits town hoping to make a living.

Notwithstanding the fact that almost exactly the same Christmas attractions are on offer within a few minutes’ walk away in Princes Street Gardens, the Grassmarket extravaganza was originally planned over two months but then scaled back because of a barrage of complaints.

But it turned out that restricting the fun to just 28 days would avoid the need for planning permission and only require a public entertainment licence despite fears that noise, disturbance and disorder, along with vomiters and urinators, would be the result.

So the residents enlisted the support of their local politicians, Marco Biagi MSP and Tommy Sheppard MP who, along with local councillors, all opposed the plans.

Biagi wrote to the council pointing out that passengers on the proposed Ferris wheel would be able to look into residents’ windows four flights up thereby invading their privacy.

The scene was therefore set last Friday the 13th when the council committee in charge of Edinburgh’s public entertainment met at the City Chambers to consider the Grassmarket application and the opposition to it.

Anyone who has experience of dealing with local councils will know that they are almost invariably controlled by officials and councillors who profess a policy of community engagement and transparency only to decide what they have already decided.

Can there be any doubt that local councils operate their own laws and deliberately wrap the process in bureaucratic gobbledygook to ensure that ordinary mortals are befuddled and confused?

The committee chairman Gavin Barrie, a former union official and now an SNP councillor, made it perfectly clear who was in charge by sweeping aside the views of his Nationalist colleagues Biagi and Sheppard to propose that the extravaganza should go ahead.

His only concessions were that the fun should stop an hour earlier, while he warned the applicants that he would go down there personally to make sure that any noise was contained and that there would be no disruption.

Thankfully, a Labour councillor, Nick Gardiner, had a rush of conscience and decided to oppose the application and in the vote which followed the residents won the day 4-3 with one councillor abstaining.

Those businesses in Grassmarket — mainly pubs and restaurants — need to remember that profit is not more important than people.

There is every sympathy for small retailers as they struggle to survive, but instead of piling the consequences onto those who live in Edinburgh city centre, the local council should be thinking of ways to help.

Why don’t they relax parking restrictions on certain days and make it easier for folk to shop in the city centre?

Why don’t they stop approving out of town shopping malls?

Why don’t they relax small business costs?

Why don’t they stop approving giant supermarkets and encourage more local bakers, butchers and grocers?

Thankfully, peace and goodwill has (maybe) broken out in Grassmarket this Christmas; residents will sleep easier and there will be no need for the bold Councillor Barrie to venture out to keep public order.

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