2007 - 2021

Who really owns the city?

cowgate (2)The Edinburgh council politics of Disneyfication of the city centre is in front of us. We see it in the never ending festival nightmare that haunts the whole city, and invades the city centre. Some people might even like it, performers take over the city centre, every street and location is filled with comedy, music and art, but often behind a curtain of light entertainment there is a different picture. During the festival many of the performers are not paid, and many of the workers are denied minimum wage, social security and health and safety. Accommodation in the month of August becomes harder to deal with for residents, tourists and performers alike who are made to compete for a room in town. In this context Air BnB, an online platform through which homes can be booked from local hosts, creates a situation where it becomes possible (and more and more common) for those with an extra room to ask for double the normal price making it almost impossible to find a room for rent in August, for less than £500. This other side of the festival really provides a sense of the ways in which exploitation and social cleansing are produced and intensified through such an event. The map of how income is distributed Edinburgh clearly shows how poor households have already been pushed outside the centre and are now under threat of even being squeezed out of the outlying schemes due to the privatisation of the housing stock there.

The city council, the Scottish government and local business are all united in celebrating this carnival of opulence. Tourists, businessmen and rich students are the privileged subjects for this theme park that the city of Edinburgh has become. Within this context public property is sold to private interests and poor residents and unwanted populations are displaced from the centre and ultimately from the city.

IMG-20160608-00307(1)How have we got here? Didn`t the city belong to its citizens who inhabit its streets, workplaces and homes every day for the whole year, not just for a few days, weeks or months?

Edinburgh exemplifies how cities have become the space in which the politics of austerity and debt are played out. Public assets are sold for insensitive, speculative projects, and a good example of this situation is the recent approval of the construction of a new hotel in the Cowgate.

This will have a massively detrimental impact on the Central Library and the local area.The original intention for this piece of land was to be used for an extension of the Central Library in a way that would firstly respect the architecture of this building, and secondly re-visit its importance as a vital 21st-century cultural hub – a space open to everyone, free of charge and a shelter for those that have nowhere else to go, study, read, and find some peace. Libraries are under threat everywhere in the UK and also in Scotland, where cuts to services and staff are putting huge limits to the services libraries are meant to support.

IMG_4017Sticking to this example is useful because it is not just the public space of the library that is stolen from the people, the land where the hotel is meant to be built is also going to take over a space currently used for supporting homeless in Edinburgh. In addition to the loss of this land, the developer has secured the sale of other assets including the Cowgatehead Church, a well-used NHS clinic which has provided services to the most needy and vulnerable in the community for many years, this is one of the few spaces where homeless can register within a medical practice and where they can receive medical attention and care. It is now earmarked to become a licensed venue as part of the proposed hotel.

Homelessness is a growing issue.Services and support spaces for people most affected by the economic crisis should not be cut but increased in current times. A group of homeless are currently camping on the site to protest against this development. They need our support and should not be left alone to fight this battle. The struggle of the E15 mothers in London provides a useful example of how the same logic of stigmatisation of homeless and their expulsion from the city is not just a casual event in the political landscape but part of a broader process, gentrification that we need to acknowledge if we want to build effective resistance.

pic2To address the homelessness crisis, there is a desperate need for more genuine social housing for rent. From 58,000 council tenancies in the late 1970’s, there are now less than 20,000 council homes in Edinburgh. The so-called regeneration of areas like Greater Pilton is actually resulting in a massive privatisation of housing stock. The new 21st Century Homes development in Muirhouse/ Pennywell plans for 30 per cent proper Council tenancies, 50 per cent private homes for sale, and 20 per cent “mid-market” rent which is unaffordable for those on benefits or low wages. This plan is rightly being opposed by groups like North Edinburgh Housing Action Group. Other campaign groups all over Scotland and the UK are also involved in such struggles.

Similarly, in the north-east London borough of Haringey, local residents and activists have formed a group called the St Ann’s Redevelopment Trust (StART), determined to beat the developers at their own game. In order to protect St Ann’s large green spaces as resources that belong to the whole of the local community, they are planning to build 500 genuinely affordable homes for local residents. As Dan Hancox notes: “this is more than just a straight fight for a higher proportion of affordable housing – essential as this is. It’s an existential battle for the soul of a crowded city already wracked by inequalities of wealth, health and housing”.

Taking over the city

If cities have become a hub for the concentration of financial capital, capture and depoliticisation of social cooperation, what is to be done? The multiple struggles that intersect in the urban space provide a materialisation of resistance to the attacks of financial capitalism.

the Cowgate development plan and its ultimate consequence of social cleansing requires a shift in our understanding of gentrification and how we can oppose it. On the planning, legal and institutional level, a number of options are available for slowing down, changing and eventually reshaping the project.

There is a need for community run spaces, where self-management and strategies to fight against the economic crisis are not just discussed but put into action. Occupying and fighting for public space can be the beginning for a bigger movement for taking back the city and its economy. Let`s make the Cowgate camp a space for connecting different struggles together and make visible the resistance to neoliberal cuts. The concrete fight against the construction of the hotel might be hard and the chances of success limited, but any changes in the way the city is run and inhabited can be won only if we manage to create solidarity between different grassroots campaigns, groups and human beings.

Last Sunday the Edinburgh Against Gentrification Forum provided a first step in the constitution of an opposition to the expropriation of the city. Residents, activists, workers, researchers and homeless came together to share their experiences and show solidarity to each other. The Cowgate case was used as an opportunity to address wider issues. This was done in the morning with a discussion of plans and spaces of resistance and in the afternoon with a series of talks and debates over what can be done to take back the city, including alternative approaches to current legislation, and reflection on the concept of gentrification and the importance of the presence of social diversity in urban areas. The Cowgate site has been already sold to developers by the Council and due to this irreversible fact, there was an assumption that this site is now a lost battle. However, the extremely rich discussion during this event led to the realisation that there is a lot more that can be done to hinder and possibly cancel the developer’s plans.(You can have a look at the streaming of the event here.

More specifically, the Cowgate development plan and its ultimate consequence of social cleansing requires a shift in our understanding of gentrification and how we can oppose it. On the planning, legal and institutional level, a number of options are available for slowing down, changing and eventually reshaping the project. A further reflection on the ways cities are inhabited requires an inversion of the current paradigm with which planning controversies such as this are conceptualised.

As the Marxist geographer Neil Gray puts it:

“With social reproduction becoming at once the site and the content of struggle, ‘take over the city’, suggests a politics that places the direct appropriation of social resources on the immediate horizon without waiting for permission from a state that would dispense this as a ‘right’.”
Neil Gray, 2012


Cowgate Occupy Camp: https://www.facebook.com/Cowgate-Occupy-Camp-Not-another-Hideous-Hotel-450839478457413/

North Edinburgh Housing Action Group email: nehagroup1@gmail.com

Comments (15)

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  1. Alf Baird says:

    “Who really owns the city?”

    The largest single land-bank in Edinburgh is the port of Leith/Granton. This is today owned by a Cayman Island registered private equity fund but given the lack of transparency of such ‘funds’ we do not know who the actual owners/investors are. What we do know is that the port, which is obsolete as far as modern day commercial shipping is concerned, is still largely derelict, re-development has been piecemeal, waterfront properties are very expensive to buy, and the Water of Leith does not flow to the sea because it is blocked by a cofferdam at the lock entrance, so the river is not ‘flushed’ out naturally, resulting in a stagnant high water level and a constant pile of silted up mud and rubbish collecting between Junction St. and the Shore (i.e. the historic harbour, which could be made navigable to leisure and tourist vessels with a little effort). More info here for anyone who is interested: http://reidfoundation.org/2016/01/sort-out-our-ports/

    I did suggest to the Council a compulsory purchase might be in order…….

    Some of the old docks could be filled in, creating plenty of land for thousands of ‘affordable’ and/or council houses…

    The former public trust port was originally sold to the management and its bankers for peanuts back in 1991…its been making a fortune for them ever since. Malcolm Rifkind was the friendly Tory Transport Minister who sold it off.

    1. Crubag says:

      I think replacong industry with housing is essentially their plan, but at a time of their choosing to maximise profits.

      When the property market dived, the masterplan for the area was abandoned. It might come back again, but going by what has already been built it could well be a BTL ghetto of poorly designed and made, executively-priced, Soviet-style housing blocks.

  2. MBC says:

    Excellent article. At last somebody speaks the truth about Edinburgh and its middle class festivals for London luvvies and the real poverty it disguises.

  3. TOM1 says:

    Hamish Kallin intervention in the talk, mention the dangers of a nostalgic response to gentrification and I think he hit the nails on a right point. We need to find new solutions to gentrification, and I would add, collective solutions. Following John Holloway reasoning, we need to build a new ‘we’that cannot fit in the existing system. We would hope to start a debate hereand we ‘re happy that this, to many seems the right time. The S.Ann residents seems an interesting response but we are aware that it might not be enough. There s another our land event in Glasgow next week, and there s more discussions on gentrification in the UK almost on a daily basis. The question is how to build up forms of collective action, practices that goes in, against and beyond the system. Land reform, community buyouts, occupations can and must connect. But the struggles of homelessness, residents and people pushed out of the city are ultimately the same struggle, we all misfit this city…we don’t fit.

  4. Crubag says:

    This is an area where we don’t need to wait for independence (which I’m guessing is 10 to 20 years away even for the next referendum) but can start creating now.

    The disconnect between people and the planning system is getting worse, not better. Volume housing decisions are now being taken by Scottish ministers, rather than local politicians, and the “review” of the planning system is tilting it towards poorly designed and sited volume housing – with little thought given to transport, schools or jobs.

    With proper devolution of local government, we can create local solutions to local needs and abandon the “top level knows best” dogma.

    1. MBC says:

      The local politicians are the problem. Didn’t you read the article?

  5. Graeme Purves says:

    Surely what we are seeing in the Cowgate and other parts of Edinburgh isn’t “gentrification” but rampant, uncontrolled commercialism, aided and abetted by the City of Edinburgh Council and its agencies without any regard to the social, environmental and cultural consequences? This has to be made a major issue in the 2017 local government elections.

    1. TOM1 says:

      Well, i would say that “rampant, uncontrolled commercialism, aided and abetted by the City of Edinburgh Council and its agencies without any regard to the social, environmental and cultural consequences” IS gentrification. And while the 2017 elections might be a moment of acceleration or slight slowdown, elections alone are not able to stop anything, and in particular not stopping gentrification. But other things could. i recommend hearing Hamish intervention at the forum as a start for this debate. Basically we know what will not stop gentrification but there is not an easy answer to what would actually be capable of stopping it.

      1. Graeme Purves says:

        I think you are in danger if misidentifying the problem. I see gentrification as being about higher income groups moving into an area in such numbers that the impact on property values and rents squeezes out lower income groups. What we are seeing in the Cowgate and other parts of the city centre is the commercial leisure sector being allowed to let rip to the extent that is squeezing out all other activity to the detriment of residents generally.

        What is happening at the moment is the negation of planning and for that the City Council is culpable. What would help to stop it is a renewed commitment to good planning and responsible licensing, and an inclusive civic vision for the city. Councillors are subject to election and they must face the electorate soon.

  6. florian albert says:

    I find myself, reluctantly, stepping forward to defend Edinburgh Council. (Yes, I accept that in many respects it is a disaster.)
    Its proposal for a mixed housing development in Muirhouse/Pennywell strikes me as a step in the right direction.
    Mixed housing is far preferable to areas where there is only council housing. Coming to live in Edinburgh twenty years ago, it was clear that there were parts of the city which were composed entirely of council houses and which had, like similar areas in Glasgow, become ghettos. Socially, they were detached from the rest of the city. Many of these houses have since been knocked down, not because they were structurally unsound, but because nobody wanted to live in them.

  7. greatelephantcensus says:

    Edinburgh is a a thriving cosmopolitan centre with an internationally recognised annual arts festival.


    Something ought to be done about this.

    Down with this sort of thing!

    1. Pilrig says:

      In spite of the muppets from CEC.

    2. Graeme Purves says:

      I have been a strong supporter of Edinburgh’s festivals throughout my adult life and for much of that time some of the city’s councillors were their most carping and tedious critics. Planning and licensing informed by a sound civic vision will not damage the festivals or our cosmopolitanism. It will safeguard the character and qualities which make Edinburgh an attractive city to live in and visit.

  8. TOM1 says:

    To everyone that has been involved in the comments to this post: first I would like to thanks folk for contributing with their ideas and experiences. I think it is important that these discussions take place and probably one of the reason many of the situation we`ve mentioned in the post reached the stage they are now is also because no proper discussion with residents, homeless and campaigners took place and as a consequence the many of such developments in the centre as well in the peripheries of the city are felt like an imposition more than anything else. I have to apologies now for not being able to contribute more to this debate as I am out of town and with unstable connection to the internet but I hope that my others co-writer from TOM can maybe add something on this piece and give more details and expand on what why we thought that the question of who really own the city is a crucial matter for establishing a different approach to gentrification (weather or not we agree on a precise definition) and homelessness (where I would hope that we can more easily agree on the need for calling for immediate action against the closure of the homeless clinic in the cowgate). I `m sorry to repeat myself but I would really recommend checking out the videos from the talks from last sunday (as well as the following debate) as there are certainly lots of ideas there worth developing. I really hope this discussion on BellaCaledonia continues cause from the imput we`ve received until now I feel there might be space for a follow up piece on those issues, maybe not now but soon!

  9. Robbie Crighton says:

    “With social reproduction becoming at once the site and the content of struggle, ‘take over the city’, suggests a politics that places the direct appropriation of social resources on the immediate horizon without waiting for permission from a state that would dispense this as a ‘right’.”
    Neil Gray, 2012

    I don’t understand what this quote is trying to say, if anyone can enlighten me?

    Overlooked in the piece is that the council has huge sway over where people stay and the mixture of those people.

    Potential council tenants and existing council tenants are sifted and vetted by council housing officers under a points system. This sifting and vetting results in poor and disadvantaged people being corralled together in the ghettos described as they have no option other than to accept their first offer of accommodation. Others in more favourable circumstances can wait until a suitable property in a location that suits them becomes available. Poor and vulnerable people need more services than well off self reliant people, but more often than not, services are located close to those who can advocate for themselves and have wealth and property. The Edinburgh GP case study being an example.

    I don’t see the parallels between Edinburgh and Haringey as being exact. White flight is a phenomena in London, as yet this is not a process in operation in Edinburgh. Also the extent and pace of change to the infrastructure of London boroughs and the money to be made from speculative property purchases far exceeds that of Edinburgh.

    Edinburgh will have to change radically when it becomes the capital of an independent state, embassies and more government departments (unless departments are devolved elsewhere). There will be a huge rush of money and people into the city, it will have to change. We should look at some of our European neighbours on how they maintain a population in the city centre, including those on low wages and are still able to host events and cater for tourists. Needless to say, the first and foremost starting point, is speaking to the folk of Edinburgh and establishing what their vision is for their city.

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