Blog: Trams can keep Leith revitalisation on track

edintrams_elmrow_18thMay2017_smallerGVA’s Peter Fraser on why proposals to extend the tram service to Leith could see the area’s conversion into one of the premier places in Edinburgh to live, work and visit.

Other than the famous footballing rivalry between Hearts and Hibernian, you may struggle to find a more divisive subject in Edinburgh than the trams.

However, if done properly, plans to extend the tram service to Leith could be good news for the area as well as the city as a whole. The council has approved the outline business case for the extension and if it happens it could unlock Leith’s potential as a business destination.

Leith has undergone something of a revitalisation in the past few years and people have noticed. It’s been compared to London’s Shoreditch and named one of the trendiest places in the UK.

As well as range of stylish bars and restaurants popping up, Leith has also seen a surge in office take-up. It increased by over 35%, from 31,000 sq. ft. in 2015 to 49,185 sq. ft. in 2016 and this trend has continued this year. Businesses know amenities local to an office are important to attracting and retaining the best staff and Leith ticks those boxes.

Compared to the city centre office rents in Leith are much lower. A refurbished open plan space in Leith is around 40% cheaper than in the centre. Residential prices are also generally lower than across the rest of the city so it’s an attractive place to live and work.

So, how does the tram extension fit in to all this? To continue its resurgence and build on momentum to date, improving public transport to Leith (and, given population growth forecasts, Edinburgh) is essential. Creating ease of access from Leith, through the city centre and out to the airport will only increase the area’s appeal.

Those looking for office space will welcome Leith as an option. Edinburgh is like no other city when it comes to planning due to its UNESCO World Heritage Status, and rightly so. But we face a limited supply of office space in central Edinburgh and whilst the business parks in West Edinburgh are well established, they do not suit all occupiers so another urban business district is needed.

Locations like Leith, which has an abundance of brownfield sites and does not face the same planning restrictions, are essential to meet demand and must be used to address the shortfall.

Edinburgh has won plaudits as a hub for exciting tech firms but a shortage of new development stock will harm its ability to retain these and help new ones flourish. Many well-established tech firms started out in Leith and it retains an appeal for the sector. However, once businesses reach a particular size many find themselves driven to the centre to secure larger offices. Infrastructure development could help Leith retain start-ups or even bring back some that have moved.

We must fully consider the implications of building the tram extension and ensure the mistakes made last time are not repeated. But the extension could be the investment in Edinburgh’s infrastructure that simultaneously addresses the lack of office space, further modernises the city’s public transport network and completes Leith’s conversion into one of the premier places in Edinburgh to live, work and visit.

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