According to the original masterplan, George Street, not Princes Street, was to have been the principal thoroughfare in Edinburgh’s New Town.
However, since the two morphed from mainly residential to mainly commercial it is the latter that has emerged as the more prominent, at least in the public eye.
This is despite the fact that Princes Street really shouldn’t work in retail landlord or occupier terms; the ideal scenario is a street half as long with shops on both sides sharing a traffic-free environment which the public can easily criss-cross.
By diverting the attention of passers-by from the shop windows, even the magnificent views of the castle could be considered negative from a commercial point of view.
On the plus side the domination of Princes Street by the major chains means that George Street has not become a clone of every other major High Street in the UK.
Once known for stockbroker and insurance offices and local clothiers selling school uniforms and FP rugby shirts, George Street is now a high-end fashion destination, deserving of the unofficial title, ‘the Bond Street of Scotland’.
And after dark its bars and restaurants keep the place alive, in stark contrast to the ghostly night-time silence that pervades Princes Street outside the summer months.
So in essence, George Street works, yet despite this Edinburgh City Council has engaged a firm of consultants to propose major changes to the thoroughfare and they in turn have come up with comparisons with Las Ramblas in Barcelona, the Boulevard Saint-Michel in Paris and Strøget in Copenhagen.
My first thought was to question why Edinburgh Council had the money to commission such an investigation given its crumbling school walls and the haphazard nature of the refuse collection service which leads to city centre streets regularly being strewn with bin bags pecked open by seagulls.
But even setting aside the question of budgets, is there any reason for George Street to undergo a major change, apart from a few desirable and inexpensive tweaks?
If a potential tourist wishes to experience Las Ramblas or Boulevard Saint-Michel then he’ll fly to Barcelona or Paris (if booked well in advance the fares are hardly expensive).
However in coming to Edinburgh he will expect something different again – a city where the architectural style and stonework is a mixture of regional and (Scottish) national and the streetscape is largely determined by local business and consumer needs as well as a climate that is frequently wet, windy or cold (or a mixture of all three).
Despite this (or at least until the property crash) developers (sometimes acting with local authorities in JV’s) continued to come up with all sorts of proposals, some of which seemed rather optimistic given location and climate.
While commercial property editor at The Scotsman I was often in receipt of press releases relating to proposals for the redevelopment of a harbour area or the revamp of a town square. Invariably the glowing text was accompanied by a computer-generated image showing happy shoppers, laden with fashion bags, sipping cappuccino at an outdoor café.
Everyone was dressed in light casual clothing and sported designer shades because, despite this being Scotland, the sun was always shining from a cloudless sky. Pristine landscaping complemented this almost-perfect scene – no cracked paving, overgrown shrubs or knee-high weeds, which are invariably the result of council cut-backs.
Council meddling in this case hardly bodes well for the future if the fate of Castle Street (sitting at right angles to George Street) is an example. The council closed Castle Street to general traffic and paved over the tarmac with the intention of creating a superior pedestrian piazza.
The result has been a dog’s breakfast with tradesmen’s vans and noisy, bleeping delivery trucks dominating much of the so-called pedestrian area.
The lower end is often given over to market-type selling housed in gaudy marquees (more suited to an agricultural showground than a city centre), which completely spoil the view towards the castle. And the paving seems to be in an almost constant state of semi-repair.
So my advice to councillors would be this: George Street ain’t broke so please put a stop to smart-alec planners trying to fix it.
TWO POUNDS TO SPEND A PENNY
If you want to spend a penny on George Street you will either have to pay £1.95 for the smallest Americano or almost double that for a pint of lager, the nearest public toilet being on Princes Street.
But at least Edinburgh still provides public toilets (plural), unlike Manchester which has just one and Newcastle upon Tyne which has none at all, according to a recent survey of these fast-disappearing but once-common establishments.
One reaction to the survey contained the telling point that a paucity of public toilets in city centres acted as a deterrent to both family shoppers and the ‘grey pound’ because children and older people ‘needed to go’ more often than adults of working age.
This gave an advantage to purpose-built, suburban shopping malls where sufficiently-large, well-maintained and well-signposted toilet facilities were part of the fabric.
So rather than devote squillions of pounds they don’t have on ‘improvements’ streets don’t need and locals and visitors don’t want, why do planners not focus on more simple but cost-effective and people-friendly initiatives to boost in-town shopping – such as providing an adequate supply of places in which to spend a penny?