After Occupy Edinburgh campers announce their intention to leave St Andrew Square, Chris Sharp and Jamie Mann from the protest ask how essential the organisation responsible for managing the park, Essential Edinburgh, really is?
The Essential Edinburgh Business Improvement District (BID) is the first of its kind in Edinburgh - a scheme started in 2008 when businesses voted ‘overwhelmingly’ in favour, according to one of the first Essential Edinburgh newsletters.
If it is deemed successful, we will likely see further districts being created in the Grassmarket, the West End and South Queensferry.
But is Essential Edinburgh as ‘essential’ as it claims?
The idea behind BIDs comes from the United States and were, in the words of one academic, set up to deal with, the “use of the space by impoverished casualties of the post-industrial economy,” who were scaring away the gentrified shoppers.
In fact, the push to cut down on these undesirable ‘casualties’ has led the city of Los Angeles to respond through “securitisation of the city centre through the building of heavily guarded private spaces and the elimination or privatisation of public spaces.”
This may sound typically ‘American’ - the rounding-up and expulsion of undesirables using private security - but when we look at London we find private police patrolling the Docklands and the City while a BID set up in the West End is said to have supported serving such people with ASBOs, just to keep them out.
In fact the London West End BID is working to remove legal street traders and small businesses, whilst it supports an increase in the number of larger multiple stores.
You will probably cast these instances off as examples of well-to-do areas of the US and London but, in fact, the issue raised in the very first testimonial on the Essential Edinburgh website reads: “I had a beggar outside our business, making a nuisance of themselves and throwing nut shells all over George St pavement.”
Nobody likes to see begging or homelessness - it makes us feel guilty for neglecting some parts of society. But should our response really mirror that of the Indian government in the 1970’s? Out of sight, out of mind.
Perhaps we expect too much. Surely dealing with the homeless is a job for charities and the council, not an area set-up to ‘improve businesses?’ Even ordinary citizens can come into conflict with private ‘laws’ associated with local privately owned public spaces, such as the city’s Multrees Walk.
Certainly this ‘gentrification’ of the area is helping the high-end businesses in the area - the likes of Harvey Nichols, HBOS, John Lewis, RBS and the Balmoral Hotel all of whom have membership on the board of Essential Edinburgh - but what about the smaller, non-retail businesses?
Well, for charities such as Friends of the Earth and Amnesty International (yes, charities still have to pay the extra levy on local business rates which funds Essential Edinburgh) who have expressed support for the anti-plutocracy, pro-democracy and fairness aims of the Occupy protests it would seem Essential Edinburgh do not act to further their interests.
Small businesses also (especially those other than retail) feel that the focus of Essential Edinburgh is squarely set on the superficial attractiveness of the area over any depth of business intelligence.
This was certainly the view of John Cant, a business director in the district at the time Essential Edinburgh was established. He wrote to Essential Edinburgh in 2008 to express concern over the lack of social or environmental benefit to the area.
John cites policies of “parking promotion” and “increasing parking provision” as “oppos[ing] establishing a sensible policy of excluding cars entirely from the city centre, thereby improving the city centre for pedestrians - the clientèle of local business.” as well as calling the focus on increasing tourism “a misdirection of resources”
But, according to Essential Edinburgh, John stands opposed to the ‘overwhelming majority’ of businesses who voted in 2008. However, on observing voting figures, we begin to see how ‘overwhelming’ this ‘majority’ was.
In fact, of the 573 eligible businesses only 44.4% turned-out to vote, and of those 254 businesses only 148, or 58%, voted in favour. So with this ‘majority’ of 26% of the overall number of eligible businesses, Essential Edinburgh was neglected into existence.
It seems a shame, therefore, that this entity with powers of legal representation and strong ties to some of Edinburgh’s biggest businesses, focuses so much on gumcleaning, litterpicking and movement of ‘undesirables.’
They should instead engage with the real threats to local businesses, like the action of reckless banks, tax-avoiding companies and their supporting governments.
These are the main concerns of Occupy and should also be the concerns of an organisation purporting to represent local businesses.
Essential Edinburgh, instead, represents everything Occupy stands against in this country - everything Scotland has resisted adopting from their English and American cousins: superficial gentrification, public land being ‘owned’ by a private entity, the rule of the working majority by a wealthy minority, the pandering to the will of the rich rather than the creation of opportunities for smaller, individual businesses that really give Edinburgh its character.
It’s not surprising then that Essential Edinburgh and the wealthy businesses around St. Andrew Square want rid of the occupiers - the only surprise is that it has taken them three months for them to demonise the protesters and then move to evict them.
While very few of our aims or actions have been reported, some of the local media have seemed eager to report on our percieved shortcomings. One reporter has even admitted his employer had taken a ‘negative editorial stance’ on the protests.
As Winston Churchhill said “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.”
Written by By Chris Sharp and Jamie Mann, supporters of Occupy Edinburgh.