Beneath the festivals and castles, Edinburgh is just as divided as the rest of the UK

Edinburgh Castle. Image: Getty.

Joyce Forsyth’s knitwear shop is nestled in a knobbly stone building in Edinburgh’s Old Town. Colourful jumpers hang in the tiny window, but it’s the scraping sound that draws me in. I find Forsyth working away at a knitting machine.

It’s a picture-perfect image of traditional Scottish crafts, but Forsyth is thinking about something distinctly modern – access to the European single market. She voted against Scottish independence in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in June this year.

She stops mid-jumper to tell me: “We should be united with Europe, and united as a country.” Having to choose one or the other would put her in a “quandary”, she says, but adds: “I would probably look at Europe. It’s economics.”

Forsyth’s view is typical: the 500,000 inhabitants of Edinburgh consider it an international city. Climb one of its seven hills and you will see, besides the castle, the unfinished tribute to the Parthenon on Calton Hill, the Enlightenment-inspired squares of the New Town, and the domes of a university designed to attract the world’s brightest talent. This is Edinburgh as it wants to be seen.

There is a gritty side, but it doesn’t appear on the postcards. Keep going past the Victorian neighbourhoods, and you’ll get to a place with no handmade jumpers, organic grocers or artisan coffee. On the run-down estates surrounding the city, benefit cuts bite and the heroin epidemic never went away.

Unlike the UK as a whole, most Scots voted to remain in the EU. Edinburgh feels the incipient constitutional crisis the referendum has caused acutely. In 2014 this was one of the most pro-UK areas in Scotland, with 61 per cent voting against independence. In the EU referendum, three-quarters voted to remain.

The citizens of this city are now facing a dismal prospect. As the pro-independence Scottish government pledges to try to avoid Brexit, they must decide whether their loyalties lie with the UK or the EU.

The European years have been kind to Edinburgh. In the 1970s, so my parents tell me, everything was closed on a Sunday and the pubs had sawdust floors. Now, expensive cafés thrive and shop windows in the New Town display designer clothes.

Leith Walk, which leads from the city centre towards the port, was the backdrop for Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel of heroin and life on the dole. Now, it’s lined with restaurants and coffee shops. It is there that I meet Duncan Hothersall, who runs the online forum Labour Hame. It was set up after the once-dominant Scottish Labour was beaten soundly in the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. I ask him how the party so closely associated with Scotland, the Union and the EU is responding.

“More people than I would have expected after the EU vote are inclined to independence,” Hothersall says. Most Labour activists in Edinburgh are pro-European, he adds: “I can’t think of a single Eurosceptic member.”

The promise of access to the single market is a powerful one. James Welby runs Tattie Shaws, a grocer’s shop in Leith. Usually in summer, the price of imported vegetables such as peppers drops, but with sterling so weak, prices have stayed high.

“I’m all for leaving Britain, but still being in the EU,” he says, in between serving customers. “The next thing is to try to negotiate to stay.”

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is trying to do just that. She has spent the summer with representatives from Brussels and Westminster. Her message is simple – in 2014, Scotland voted to stay in a UK inside the EU. Brexit breaks that contract.

Sturgeon has been praised for her post-Brexit leadership. But others sense an SNP plot. Cat Headley is a solicitor who became a Labour activist during the Scottish referendum. After failing to win a seat in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, she campaigned to keep the UK in the EU – but on 24 June experienced defeat again.

The modern heart of political Edinburgh: the Scottish Parliament, at Holyrood. Image: Getty.

Nevertheless, Headley’s views on the UK have not changed. Recalling the aftermath of the Brexit vote, she says: “There were a lot of people commenting how they might feel differently about independence.”

But she believes that Brexit could bolster support for the UK. “Voters are going to see the consequences of big constitutional change in terms of jobs and the economy. They are going to learn from that.”

For all its left-wing credentials, Edinburgh is a business-minded place. Adam Smith, the author of The Wealth of Nations, is buried in an Old Town kirkyard. Some of the most impressive sandstone buildings are the headquarters of banks. When I was growing up here, these financial giants were associated in my mind with the city’s increasingly elaborate firework displays. The 2008 crash left residents stunned, and the fireworks somewhat disappointing.

Much of the city’s chattering class lives in south Edinburgh, where the wide Victorian streets are lined with lime trees and large houses. J K Rowling lived here for a while, and so, still, do the authors Ian Rankin and Alexander McCall Smith.

According to Labour’s Daniel Johnson, the constituency MSP for Edinburgh Southern, 80 per cent of the constituency voted to remain in the EU. “On polling day, we were being hooted at with thumbs up,” he says. “To have such a positive campaigning experience, and then come out with the wrong result, was really upsetting.”

In the poorest parts of Edinburgh, more than 27 per cent of households lived in poverty in 2014, according to the City of Edinburgh Council. In affluent areas, by contrast, the figure was 17 per cent. In 2012 the National Union of Students found that only 1.4 per cent of children from Edinburgh’s poorest areas were achieving the grades demanded by top universities.

These neighbourhoods voted to leave the EU, Labour activists say, just like other poor parts of the UK. Beneath the surface, Edinburgh is as divided as the rest of Britain – with the added complication that the independence debate has been reignited by Brexit. “There are two countries,” Johnson says. “We are in one of them.” 

Julia Rampen is the editor of the Staggers, where this post was originally published.


Jane Jacobs and Le Corbusier would agree on one thing: we need more social housing

Unite d’Habitation, Marseille. Image: Iantomferry/Wikimedia Commons.

Much has been written in CityMetric and beyond about the urban planning debates of the 1950s and ‘60s, that came to be characterised as a battle between master-planning and preservation. One side of the debate was personified by the father of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier, whilst the counter-argument was advanced by writer and journalist Jane Jacobs.

But when it comes to London’s housing crisis, aren’t there a few things that these two would actually agree on?

Jane Jacobs’ writing about the organic nature of self-organising communities, demonstrated, in her words, by the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of inner city neighbourhoods, should be required reading for anyone interested in how cities function. But today, Jacobs is increasingly invoked in attempts to oppose new developments of any kind. Her role in conceiving Manhattan’s West Village Houses, a low cost rented housing scheme built through New York State’s Mitchell-Lama Program, is unfortunately much less well known. It’s been suggested that if Jacobs were around today, she’d be working with New York’s housing activists. When her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written, there were almost 2 million rent-controlled or rent-stabilised apartments in New York City; nowadays, there are fewer than half that number.

Le Corbusier, on the other hand, is too often blamed for drab high-rise blocks. But regardless of how well his followers across Europe interpreted his ideas, Le Corbusier’s vision for cities was about high quality residential blocks that also contained shops and leisure amenities and were surrounded by parkland – the original mixed use development if you like. His most famous building, Marseille’s Unite d’Habitation, consisted of 337 apartments with views of the mountains and the sea together with shops, a restaurant and a nursery school. The building was originally intended to be public housing, but the French government eventually sold off the flats to recoup costs. Alton West Estate in Roehampton and Park Hill in Sheffield are just some of the examples of Le Corbusier’s influence on the design of post-war council housing here in the UK.

Building homes for a serious business in post-war Britain. Under Attlee’s 1945 Labour Government, 700,000 new council homes were completed. In 1952, the largest architectural practice in the World was at London County Council, with 1,577 staff including 350 professional architects and trainees. These were the days of consensus, and very quickly Tory governments were actually competing with Labour governments about who could built the most council homes.

Some of the council homes built post-war have stood the test of time better than others. But what’s not in doubt is that building council homes on such a scale immeasurably changed the lives of so many families in desperate need of a decent, secure and affordable home. And so many of the post-war modernist high-rise blocks so despised by Jacobs quickly took on the organic self-organising traits that she held in such high regard and have become some of the most enduring and closely-knit communities in London.

Fast forward to 2019 and Right To Buy continues to decimate council housing stock, but perversely home ownership seems more out of reach than ever for so many. An entire generation is being forced to embrace long term private ting in a country that has some weakest protections for private tenants in Europe. Meanwhile, government spending on building new homes fell from £11.4bn in 2009 to just £5.3bn in 2015 – from 0.7 per cent to 0.2 per cent of GDP – and since then, the housing minister’s desk has been occupied by no fewer than six people.

So what would a comprehensive drive for new council and social housing on the scale of the 1945 government’s efforts look like in 2019?

Lubetkin, the architect responsible for Islington’s Spa Green Estate and Bevin Court, summed up the spirit of post-war council home building with his maxim that “nothing is too good for ordinary people”. It’s a vision that we’re trying to recreate through our own council home building programme in Islington.

One of the best opportunities for small council home building schemes is to expand upon existing communities. The vast majority of Islington’s new council housing takes the form of infill, construction on existing estates; in unloved spaces, in old garages, and in old undercrofts. These projects often involve landscaping and new amenities to enhance rather than reinvent local communities. We have built community centres and even rebuilt a library as part of council housing schemes. One Tenants’ and Residents’ Association had an idea for a new specialist over 55s block for the older residents of the estate who wanted to stay in their community.

But there’s a place for large-scale place making as well. When the Ministry of Justice closed Holloway Prison and announced that the site would be sold, Islington Council published a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) on the site. We had one aim – to send a clear signal to the market that anyone who was looking at buying the site needed to be aware of their planning obligations. Most importantly, any development on the site needed to include at least 50 per cent genuinely affordable homes. The speculation around the site came to an end on 8 March this year when Peabody Housing Association announced that it had bought it. It has committed to going well above and beyond our planning requirements, by making 600 out of a total 1000 homes genuinely affordable homes, including 420 homes for social rent. We need to see more detail on what they are proposing but this is potentially brilliant for the borough. A local grassroots group, Community Plan for Holloway, have been instrumental in ensuring that the community’s voice is heard since the site was sold.

To recreate the scale of the massive post-war council home building programmes would require a Jane Jacobs inspired level of community activism combined with the architectural idealism of Le Corbusier. But it would also need the political will from central government to help local authorities get council housing built. And that, sadly, feels as far away as ever.

Diarmaid Ward is a Labour councillor and the executive member for housing & development at the London Borough of Islington.