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"Connectivity for the Capital: The Cockburn Association's perspective on how best to meet Edinburgh's transport needs" by Bill Cantley, Vice-Chairman, The Cockburn Association - Edinburgh meeting of 22 November 2011

Bill Cantley, Vice-Chairman, The Cockburn Associationd

Bill Cantley, Vice-Chairman, The Cockburn Association.

Founded in 1875, the Cockburn Association is the Edinburgh Civic Trust and commemorates the exertions of Lord Cockburn who, having campaigned to protect the south side of Princes Street from development and stop the railway being built through the Gardens, wrote to the Lord Provost in 1849 about the best ways of spoiling Edinburgh. As a charity which aims to preserve and increase the attractions of the city and neighbourhood, it has members ranging from corporate bodies and architectural practices to some 70 affiliated societies and community councils and an individual membership of one thousand.

"You win some, you lose some", and as Lord Cockburn was wrong on Princes Street Gardens so the Secretary of State overruled the Reporter's finding against construction of the second runway at Edinburgh Airport. The Water of Leith Walkway has been substantially achieved thanks to the constant pressure from the Association, which successfully opposed the 1960s Inner Ring Road and 1980s Western Relief Road - whose cancellation marked the end of an era. The Association supported the Edinburgh City Bypass, but the Sheriffhall Roundabout still needs grade-separation and an express bus remains under consideration. Some railway solums had been protected to become routes for active travel, but others like Corstorphine and Barnton were built on and station sites on the South Suburban have been lost to development.

Edinburgh is both fortunate and unfortunate in having never been a major manufacturing centre, with the resultant dearth of big brownfield sites for regeneration. A recognition that housing demand arose more from household formation than from population growth has contributed to the creation of a compact walkable city that provides the critical mass for support of high-quality public transport.

Edinburgh now has a commercially successful bus service provided with accessible and environmentally friendly vehicles by a locally owned bus operator that is in the short list for Best UK Bus Company of the Year. A new station at Edinburgh Park is served by the new Airdrie-Bathgate route, the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme will see electrification extended across much of the rest of the Central Belt and escalators are about to come into use at the Waverley Steps. The tram survived this summer's crisis - what an advertisement of our incompetence its cancellation would have been - but sadly all this is not enough, for the debate about the potential of the South Suburban continues interminably and genuine integration of ticketing compares poorly with our Continental neighbours.

The only two roads built on old railways - the Western Approach and West Granton Access Road - are fortunately of modest scale since building new roads in cities spreads traffic problems. Tremendous growth has occurred over the last decade astride and beyond the Bypass on the western edge of the City.

Two scenarios see Edinburgh as either smug with a lack of openness to new ideas or else as cosmopolitan, enjoying unique quality of life and being of optimal size. Advent of an SNP administration nationally and a Lib Dem-led coalition locally led to the go-ahead for an additional Forth crossing and cancellation of the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link. Such changes have been reflected in a new National Planning Framework, prioritising projects and setting a framework for local authorities to be given back some of their decision-making powers on other proposals.

The tram has been characterised by a disappointingly low level of public debate, but the widespread predictions of social collapse has not yet been proved to be well-founded. The scale of projects has grown with completion of Gogarburn and the Exchange Quarter, and while the credit crunch has halted Caltongate and Fountainbridge, the Parliament has undoubtedly emphasised Edinburgh's status as a capital city.

Edinburgh's strength is the quality and drama of its physical setting and environment, and past mistakes such as Canning House and the St James Centre show what should not be allowed again. The Green Belt has enhanced that setting, but the Retail Park at Straiton seems a serious breach of its principles. The existence of a "Scottish cringe" is an unbearable notion, but mismanagement of the Parliament building had led to a widespread pessimism as to the practicality of controlling cost and delivery of large projects while the Council has given the impression of lacking a broad strategy for dealing with development matters which could be attributed to the loss of architect-planners during local government reorganisation. The Association spoke for congestion-charging since it could not be content with Edinburgh's continuance as one of Britain's' ten most congested cities.

It seems clear that retention of a residential city centre has contributed to its designation as a World Heritage Centre, success as a shopping and tourist magnet, reputation for quality of life and growth as Britain's second financial services centre. As a coastal city Edinburgh cannot ignore climate change, but the 1972 Limits to Growth report lost credibility and the Copenhagen summit was a failure casting doubt on our willingness to reach a meaningful agreement on carbon emissions, and while technology has an ever-increasing role it is widely accepted that we are playing for high stakes.

The Association's proper role is a Socratic one of intelligent critical pragmatism. The National Planning Framework is a commendable basis for planning Scotland's future, and we have a robust and successful local economy. It is however going to take a long time to see Edinburgh reach even the threshold of having one successful tram line in use, and if buses that are inherently adaptable and carry low infrastructure costs are to remain the backbone of our public transport for many years, a much higher priority will have to be given to efficient clears routes and controls - it is over forty years since initial use of bus-activated traffic lights in London, but Edinburgh's flagship no. 22 route still has to accommodate parked cars preventing buses from passing each other in Leith streets. Edinburgh would do best by concentrating on making the present transport systems work better than they already do - sadly the Association has little to show for forty years of campaigning for rail-based solutions within the city - and what is required is the engagement, optimism, vigilance and determination which are the Cockburn's hallmarks to fulfil Edinburgh's vision as the most successful and sustainable small city in northern Europe.

The Scottish region would like to thank Edinburgh City Council for hosting this event.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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