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Edinburgh labelled a dystopian dump unfit for independence

ONE of the world's leading intellectual magazines has caused fury in Edinburgh by labelling the capital as a "dystopian wasteland", which is paralysed and in decline.

Author Irvine Welsh, above, was among those to hit back after Richard Williams, below, claimed that north of Princes Street, top, the waterfront reaches a peak of despair at Granton Harbour
Author Irvine Welsh, above, was among those to hit back after Richard Williams, below, claimed that north of Princes Street, top, the waterfront reaches a peak of despair at Granton Harbour

The article, entitled "Scotch This Plan: Scotland's decaying capital city shows why this country is not ready for independence" was published in Foreign Policy magazine on Wednesday.

It was written by Richard Williams, professor of contemporary visual cultures at Edinburgh University, whose research focuses on the "symbolic economy" – or the way that cities present themselves through images.

Senior figures from the city council, the Chamber of Commerce, tourism body VisitScotland, the arts, and author Irvine Welsh hit out at the article, which says Edinburgh is in state of "urban stagnation", and criticises the city for being stuck in the past.

The trams projects and the Edinburgh Waterfront scheme are described as shoddy attempts at regeneration, while Princes Street and the Stockbridge neighbourhood are dubbed shabby and poor.

One section reads: "Due north of Princes Street, along the Firth of Forth, is Edinburgh Waterfront, a project to rebuild the city's industrial ocean frontage. It starts promisingly enough in Leith with warehouse conversions and funky bars, but head a quarter-mile east and you find yourself in a dystopian wasteland of vacant lots worthy of a JG Ballard novel. The waterfront reaches its peak of despair at Granton Harbour where a handful of shoddy buildings emerge from a giant mud pool, the inadvertent result of stalled construction. Wrecked bicycles and shopping carts litter the scene."

Later it reads: "Edinburgh struggles with the past as much as it struggles with the future. The result is a curious paralysis and a paradoxical sense of decline."

It concludes: "The city's difficulties are perhaps in microcosm those of a nation uncertain about its future. Before Scotland can be a country, its capital needs to get its house in order."

Irvine Welsh, the author of classic novel Trainspotting, who also wrote A Visitor's Guide to Edinburgh in 1993, said: "This is the strangest report I have ever read.

"It examines the mess and paralysis Edinburgh has been in for years under Unionist Westminster government, and draws the ludicrous conclusion that, due to this, Scotland isn't ready for independence.

"Surely the state of Edinburgh as a tatty, run-down museum, economically and culturally stagnant, devoid of the vision and focus a true capital city needs, is precisely why it needs to be a de facto capital, not languishing in its weary, second-rate, neither-fish-nor-fowl status.

"It's a bit like not allowing Andy Murray to hold a tennis racket, then saying he's probably not good enough to compete at Wimbledon. Do they actually pay people to write this crap?"

Edinburgh City Council leader Andy Burns said the article's assertions were "ill informed" and a "great disservice" to Edinburgh.

He said: "They are also contradicted by the city's continued popularity as a visitor destination and the many international awards cementing this reputation.

"Recently named 'Europe's Leading Destination' at the World Travel Awards, Edinburgh is famed for its history and culture but is also known as a thriving, modern city.

"I would also like to draw [the author's] attention to examples of very successful renovation projects in the Grassmarket, St Andrew Square and Multrees Walk."

Malcolm Roughead, chief executive of VisitScotland, said: "Edinburgh is undoubtedly one of the finest cities in the world, boasting world-class visitor attractions, stunning vistas and historical splendour. Consistently, this awe-inspiring capital city tops the list of places to go for visitors while in Scotland."

Aspokesman from the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce said: "Edinburgh is no different to any other city or town in the UK and has felt the effects of high-street closures and difficult economic times but the resilience of our members, retailers and businesses who work tirelessly to support the local economy, who have committed their future to the Scottish capital and have continued to thrive, should be applauded."

Williams's report touches on similar themes to the controversial "Skintland" article published last April in financial magazine The Economist, which provoked anger from First Minister Alex Salmond.

But Williams claims he did not intend to engage in a political debate, arguing he is "agnostic" on the subject of independence. He claimed that the magazine pushed the referendum angle, writing the headline and editing some parts.

"However," he said, "what I would say, if you were a visitor here and you were looking for signs of some incipient new nation or a place that had confidence about where it was going, you wouldn't find that in Edinburgh."

Williams has lived and worked in the city since 2000. He said: "I don't think Scotland is uppity and needs to be kept down, it is more, if there is this serious debate about how it moves forward, 'how is that represented in the built environment?'

"At the moment it looks like if you have a clear and longstanding majority against independence, then, in a curious way, that is represented in the built environment. It is a kind of apathy – there is not a clear majority for change.

"There seems to be a clear majority for things to stay as they are, and that produces the inability to think forward, it produces a sort of decay. [If] we were building lots of infrastructure then there would be a much more convincing sense that you could build a political project of independence or further devolution on the back of that."

The Sunday Herald was unable to contact Foreign Policy magazine for comment.

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