Plans for a major overhaul of George Street which will see hundreds of parking spaces ripped out and pedestrians given priority is moving forward – despite concerns over funding, the impact on businesses and a lack of trees in the designs.
Work to pedestrianise the city centre thoroughfare is set to begin in 2024 and take three years.
An operational plan detailing how the construction will take place is not yet agreed however. Councillors voted to proceed with the latest designs which show the street reimagined with widened pavements, cycle lanes and planters.
Cross-party support also saw members agree to further explore introducing trees on the street, which has been a consistent theme in public consultations but is made difficult by the area’s World Heritage status.
Whilst general motorists and buses will no longer be able to use George Street, access for taxis and deliveries for businesses will be permitted between 7pm and 10am, extended to 12pm on Sundays.
Responding to concerns about access for people with mobility issues, transport officials said they will give “further consideration” to allowing taxis outwith this window for disabled users.
And whilst the project will result in the removal of over 240 parking spaces, some bays will be retained for blue badge holders, who will be exempt from the restrictions.
Local residents and businesses welcomed the plans at the transport and environment committee on Thursday but said several issues have to be addressed before the project moves to the construction stages.
Kevin Woodburn from Edinburgh City Private Hiresought assurances from the council that the firm’s drivers will also be allowed access.
“As an industry we have absolutely no objections to the overall principles of the George Street plan and everything else that goes around that,” he said. “All we’re looking for is the access to be able to pick and drop off within the given areas in the same way a taxi is.
“We understand that the item as such in terms of private hire and private hire access will be looked at in stage four.”
Essential Edinburgh, which represents city centre businesses, called for discussions around how traders affected by the work will be compensated
Chief Executive Roddy Smith said: “Further discussion is needed on how the build will take place. Businesses need to know which blocks will be done when and how long this will take.
“You cannot do a project of this scale without it negatively effecting businesses.
“Every business will be in front of a building site with access to premises both difficult and ugly. Even if access is maintained, people may well choose to eat/sleep/shop elsewhere if the environment is not welcoming.
“Essential Edinburgh would welcome a formal discussion about compensation for businesses/business rates relief during the build. Properties on George Street pay significant rates annually and to continue with this expense when income is compromised would not be fair.”
George Street Association chair Dr William Duncan said questions remain over how all the cash will be secured for the £36m project, which is currently 70 per cent funded and requires an additional £10m from the council.
Dr Duncan said there was risk of “a funding gap developing due to the nature of this project at an inflationary time”.
“We do have real concerns that during the extended construction phase there will be a very adverse effect on our members – both operationally and financially,” he said.
“Businesses on George Street fear a dramatic decline in footfall as a result of these works.”
Paul Lawrence, director of place, said any support for businesses will need to be agreed by councillors.
Finlay McFarlane, SNP councillor for the city centre, said further consideration needs to be given to incorporating trees into the designs.
“We must acknowledge our responsibility to future-proof this design for the next 100 years or so,” he said. “Global temperatures are rising, we are getting abnormal bouts of severe rain and if we are to safeguard the future public enjoyment there is a very clear need for shade, shelter and suds.”
However, officials said the area’s status as a Unesco World Heritage Site could be jeopardised as trees would “create a boulevard effect diluting the clarity of the urban structure”.
“It is certainly something that would impact on the quality and character,” they said.
Despite this, the committee agreed to continue exploring how trees could be included after SNP and Green members pushed for engagement around this to continue.
Meanwhile Tory councillors were alone in opposing the plans, calling for a full review of the project before it progresses any further.
Conservative councillor Christpher Cowdy said: “Today we’ve heard a number of fundamental problems with the design affecting cyclists, pedestrians, businesses, events, public transport and enforcement. It would be a big gamble to push ahead with this project in light of these fundamental design issues alongside the £10m needed from the active travel budget and the overall economic climate.
“And that is why a full review of the project is needed.”
Transport convener Scott Arthur, Labour, said there was “light at the end of the tunnel with this project”.
He added: “This is going to be a positive thing for George Street and it’s going to be a step in the right direction.”