A group of tourism retailers on the Royal Mile have made a plea to Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government to present a case for ‘special assistance’ to save jobs after dozens of shops on the iconic street have remained closed due to it not being financially viable to open.

In an open letter from traders they described the Royal Mile as ‘undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Scottish tourism’ but added that it is now a shadow of its former self and that urgent assistance is required to save the livelihoods of Scots who have put their hearts and souls into businesses that, on the Royal Mile alone, employs thousands of people whose jobs are imminently at risk.

As restrictions lift and staycations are on the cards for many Scots, tourism traders on the Royal Mile have still found themselves in a ‘dismal’ situation.

In an open letter from traders they described the Royal Mile as ‘undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of Scottish tourism’ but added that it is now a shadow of its former self and that urgent assistance is required to save the livelihoods of thousands of people whose jobs are imminently at risk.

“This past weekend being a Bank Holiday and school holiday, a survey of 15 Royal Mile businesses reports an 80 to 90 per cent drop in takings as ‘staycationers from Scotland may well purchase food and beverage but do not purchase tourist gifts.’

“Landlords including the City of Edinburgh Council are demanding full rent be paid for the last six months although businesses were closed by government decree yet I have no doubt that if a council house tenant could not gain access to their council house for six months the council would not charge them rent.

“We as a group are fully aware that City of Edinburgh Council are also in a difficult financial position and appeal to them also to reach out to the Scottish Government and present a case for assistance for Royal Mile Traders who find themselves in a unique difficulty of losing the lifeblood of international tourists.”

John Thorburn is one of the retailers who says he feels ‘anxious’ about the future if urgent assistance is not provided

Traders also claimed that dozens of emails have been sent to various MSPs, MPs, councillors and the Minister for Tourism, who received 23 emails from one trader, with most not responding, and the others ‘passed on’ to other departments.

The letter adds: “It seems our elected representatives abandoned us in our time of need. It will be some time before our industry returns to normal and government support is urgently needed and a plan for future support agreed. The Scottish government continually finds millions of pounds to support businesses and industries that have no hope of survival whilst the highly successful tourist retail sector is left to rot.”

One trader, John Thorburn, who owns family-run business Really Scottish has said that this is a plea for help, and much needed dialogue.

He said: “Things are dismaly quiet, we just wish someone would respond to us. Edinburgh is a city that thrives on international tourism and expensive rents are justified by high footfall, but that hasn’t been the case for the last 15 months.

“There are thousands employed on this street, we’ve made posters for outside our shops and we’re not anti-SNP, but they are the ones in government who aren’t helping us.

“I’m very anxious about the financial situation. The tourism industry in Edinburgh will return, but it will take some time.

“My business has been here for more than 20 years and like other businesses is very much a part of the Royal Mile, but we need some support for those people like us whose livelihoods and lives are here, as well as the future. We can’t be burdened with further debt.”

Council Leader, Adam McVey said: “It has been an extremely difficult time for every business across the city who have had to close their doors during lockdown and have worked extremely hard to curb the spread of the virus and protect customers. We’ve seen a fantastic amount of innovation of traders, taking their business offer online, developing takeaway offers for customers and diversifying their offer to keep going as circumstances have changed.

“Over past year, we have made over 19,000 payments of over £250m to businesses through grant funds provided by the Scottish Government to help businesses to stay afloat.

“Shops operating from Council units who approached us to seek assistance with their rents were offered up to 6-months rent free in financial year 2020/21 and we’ve approved the use of repayment plans for those tenants still seeking assistance for the second half of that financial year to be as flexible we can to help businesses recover.”

Depute Leader Cammy Day, said: “We continue to have ongoing discussions with Scottish Government around support for businesses in areas that remain in Level 2. And as we look ahead to the wider economic recovery of our Capital we’re actively developing plans through our Economic Development Strategy and our City Centre Recovery Plan to help drive momentum, generate footfall, development inspirational campaigns like Forever Edinburgh and help to deliver our world renowned Festivals. While also working on targeted support in conjunction with local areas, like our Shop Here This Year campaign and collaborating with business groups.”

Child poverty has risen in every Scottish council area since 2015, even before the impact of the pandemic is considered, campaigners have warned.

The End Child Poverty coalition points to research from Loughborough University which shows estimates of children living in poverty in each local authority have increased.

Child poverty rates for 2019-20 range from 15.8% in the Shetland Islands to 32.2% in Glasgow, though figures were calculated before the onset of coronavirus.

At 24%, Scotland has lower levels of child poverty than England (30%) or Wales (31%).

Holyrood has unanimously passed legislation requiring the Scottish Government to ensure fewer than 18% of children are living in poverty by 2023/24, on course to less than 10% by 2030.

Campaigners say there can be no complacency if these targets are to be met.

Speaking on behalf of the End Child Poverty coalition, John Dickie said: “Solid foundations have been laid in Scotland for future progress on child poverty, not least the introduction of the Scottish Child Payment and an increasing focus on action at local level.

“But this new data is a stark reminder that child poverty was still rising in every part of Scotland, even before the pandemic struck.

“The challenge now is for government at all levels to use every power they have to boost family incomes and reduce the costs that struggling parents face.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “While child poverty levels remain lower than in England and Wales, we are not complacent and are doing all we can to tackle and reduce child poverty in Scotland.

“We are providing support worth about £5000 by the time a child turns six through the Best Start Grant, Best Start Foods and Scottish Child Payment.

“This payment, worth £40 every four weeks, is already reaching thousands of families on low incomes – we are working to deliver it to all eligible children under 16 by the end of 2022 and doubling the value of the payment by the end of this Parliamentary term.

“The 2021-22 Scottish Budget commits further investment to tackle child poverty, including £100 million to support struggling families through new Pandemic Support Payments and £49.75m for expanded free school meal support.

“These statistics highlight that, even before the pandemic began, the challenge of negotiating the UK’s welfare system has left many people in desperate need of help.

“The UK Government must act now to match our action and commit to making permanent the £20 uplift to Universal Credit, and extend this to people on other benefits.”

From February into April, Edinburgh has witnessed a series of appalling attacks on Lothian Buses, endangering staff and passengers and halting many services in the evenings.

Last week the council finally got round to discussing the situation thanks to a Conservative motion calling for action. While the SNP-run council has condemned the actions of the vandals, they’ve done little else.

The answer to these issues is proper local policing that engages with the young people in our communities, works in partnership with other agencies like the council’s youth services, diverts young people away from crime and anti-social behaviour, and targets hotspot areas where attacks take place to catch the perpetrators. It effectively prevents the problem at source.

This is precisely what we had until 2013 under the former Lothian and Borders Police. It was driven by a much larger network of community-based officers who knew their areas and worked with the residents on problems.

I have every respect for the work our local police have done to resolve the attacks on our transport system. But there are not enough officers. The number of locally-based police officers in Edinburgh has fallen since the creation of Police Scotland while the population has risen inexorably. When averaged out per thousand residents, the local officers in Greater Glasgow outnumber ours by three to two.

Under Police Scotland, the focus and accountability of the service has centralised. Smaller numbers of local officers are unable to work on prevention as they chase around the endless stream of incidents. Through no fault of their own, their contacts with community councils and other local groups are limited.

The council doesn’t give enough time to scrutinise local policing, burying it in lengthy committee agendas. And previous attempts to argue for more local police resources have obviously fallen on deaf ears.

The council’s youth and community services have been slow to return from lockdown. I’m pleased that one SNP councillor, Kate Campbell, has highlighted the bureaucratic restrictions that have caused this. She seemed slightly embarrassed when I praised her actions at the council meeting. I hope she’ll carry on until she gets a result.

The bottom line is Edinburgh needs its fair share of local police officers so we can return to a preventative approach. The police focus on the task usually galvanises the partnership with other agencies too.

I know from my time on the Scottish Police Authority Board that the Police Scotland top-brass recognise the disparity between local police numbers in Edinburgh and elsewhere. I even agree with them that it will take time to sort.

However, the figures haven’t improved. And the soflty, softly approach of the SNP council’s lobbying has achieved nothing.

It’s high time the council stood up for Edinburgh and its needs as a capital city. Police Scotland and the Scottish government should show us a workable plan to give us a fair share of police resources. If they don’t, we should kick up a political stink until they do.

The politicians aren’t listening to us,’ an exasperated teacher tells me by phone. ‘There’s nothing left for us to do but get on with it.’ The despair felt by Scottish teachers is a notable shift from the anger I encountered in the staffroom when I trained among them five years ago.

That was the year of the ‘PISA shock’, 2015, when Scotland performed abysmally in reading, maths, and science in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Distinguished education professors at top Scottish universities were left reeling. One such academic suggested that the Scottish government had five years to fix the problem. In response, John Swinney, the SNP’s education secretary, promised to implement ‘radical’ and ‘controversial’ reforms. He might have also promised to make matters worse, since that’s what he’s done.

In 2019-2020, the proportion of pupils passing three or more Highers was 43 per cent, lower than any year from 2015 onwards. Audit Scotland, an independent watchdog, concludes that the attainment gap between rich and poor ‘remains wide’ and that progress ‘falls short of the Scottish government’s aims’. Scottish children from poor backgrounds remain significantly less likely than their English counterparts to go to university.

Yet in 2019 Swinney tweeted that the most recent PISA figures (showing a slight ascent from the depths to which literacy had sunk) ‘corroborates what we see elsewhere — improving schools and a closing of the attainment gap’. But where exactly do we see this? Look closely at the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, the shoogly peg on which the Scottish government hangs such claims, and you quickly find that it is not fit for purpose. For instance, the government reported that in 2019 the highest ever percentage of school leavers (26 per cent) from the most-deprived quintile of areas were going on to university. However, elsewhere the government’s own research indicates that as many as 90 per cent of those on low incomes actually live outside the ‘most deprived’ areas.

‘About half of the decrease in the gap (2+1.5 out of 7) is likely to have been due either to non-disadvantaged people living in deprived areas, or to the stagnation of entry from non-deprived areas,’ writes Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at the University of Edinburgh. Professor Paterson goes on to say that the government’s decision to base its policy conclusions on these ‘sleights of hand seems distinctly dubious’.

Distinct dubiety is a hallmark of this government’s education policy. From the beginning, standards have been adapted to fit the curriculum, and not (as it should be) the other way round. For example, when Curriculum for Excellence was introduced in 2010 under Alex Salmond, the SNP withdrew Scotland from two major international maths, science, and literacy surveys: Timss and Pirls. Then, in 2017, the government decided to withdraw from another tried and tested literacy and numeracy survey.

The SNP’s preferred metric is continuous assessment, which they largely make up as they go along. Standard Grades and Intermediates have been replaced with ‘National 4’ and ‘National 5’ and the Scottish Highers have been hollowed out, changing in all but name. To put it mildly, the results fail to impress. Paterson explains that not only do the latest reports indicate that ‘pass rates in the Higher and National 5 assessments have been falling’, but ‘in mathematics, too many students’ numeracy was weak and too many struggled with algebra. In social subjects and in English there was a tendency to mistake opinions for facts, to make sweeping generalisations, and to answer exam questions with regurgitated model essays that had been memorised’.

It was hardly surprising that CfE — dreadful at the best of times — was unable to withstand the pressures of the pandemic. Last summer, Swinney was forced to upgrade some 75,000 high school students’ exam results after the outcry over the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s decision to downgrade pupils’ marks. Cruelly and unusually, teachers had been appointed arbiters of children’s futures, and were instructed to rank order their pupils. Which created entirely foreseeable problems.

Now it would seem that ‘assessment’ is virtually the only form of education that Scottish pupils are guaranteed to get. After Easter, pupils were brought back to the classroom to face a continuous diet of assessments, since the official end-of-year exams have yet again been cancelled. What’s the difference between an ‘assessment’ and an ‘exam’? ‘You tell me,’ one teacher says.

Teachers are deeply concerned about the mental health of pupils under this stress. There are huge holes in pupils’ learning due to the pandemic, but the time away has also exposed the weakness of a system based on teaching children to parrot answers for a test. Many pupils have not been taught how to think, let alone have any general knowledge on which to draw. And while some private schools were able to set up preliminary exams over Zoom with invigilators, pupils at state schools and from poorer backgrounds (or without the same parental support) have had no such advantage.

Meanwhile, teachers are struggling to keep up with the Scottish Qualifications Authority’s continual changes to its 2020-2021 ‘alternative certification model’. As indicated on the SQA’s website, the latest ‘update’ was announced on April 13, maddeningly close to the June 25 deadline to submit materials (though that deadline is also an ‘update’).

Perhaps most scandalous of all is Swinney’s decision not to release the findings of the OECD’s report on Curriculum for Excellence until after the May election. He says this is on account of ‘confidentiality rules’. Who does he think he’s kidding? Education is fully devolved. Scotland’s pupils aren’t guinea pigs. Scotland’s teachers aren’t load-carrying mules. Scotland’s public isn’t stupid. Those responsible for this mess ought to answer for it at the ballot box.

Declining scores for Scottish pupils in maths and science can plausibly be blamed on Curriculum for Excellence (CfE), according to a major report.

The study from the Institute for Government (IfG) says results for the two subjects in the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are lower than in 2006, despite a claim in the SNP’s 2011 manifesto that the drop had been “halted”.

THE Royal Bank of Scotland would move out of Scotland after nearly 300 years if the country votes for independence, it has confirmed.

CEO Alison Rose said the bank, which last year changed its name from RBS Group to NatWest, would move its headquarters out of Scotland if the country backs a Yes vote.

RBS said ahead of the 2014 independence referendum that it would move its HQ to London – and Ms Rose announced that it still the bank’s position just days before the Scottish parliamentary election on May 6.

As reported by Reuters, Ms Rose said, despite the bank being “neutral” on independence, its “balance sheet would be too big” for the Scottish economy if the country breaks away from the UK.

State-backed NatWest has been based for 294 years in Edinburgh.

Ms Rose said: “In the event that there was independence for Scotland our balance sheet would be too big for an independent Scottish economy.

“And so we would move our registered headquarters, in the event of independence, to London.”

Ms Rose, who became CEO in 2019, added: “We are neutral on the issue of Scottish independence. It’s something for the Scottish people to decide.”

Investment bank Morgan Stanley this week put the chance of Scottish independence at 15 per cent, while rival Citi put it as high as 35 per cent.

Sometimes, Westminster unwittingly makes quite a good case for Scottish independence. Britain’s Covid emergency has ended, but the damage of the last year is enormous: the knock-on effects of lockdown can be seen in NHS waiting lists, the devastated high street, the mental health backlog and the 20,000 pupils who are absent from the school register. There is urgent work to do, yet the government is engaged in a battle to the death over who paid for wallpaper in Downing Street.

We see a Prime Minister at war with his ex-adviser, unable to rise above the fray and capitalise on the opportunity of his vaccine success. Then there’s the opposition, unable to oppose. It’s not hard to see why many Scots might opt to press the ‘eject’ button by voting for the Scottish National Party in the Holyrood election next week.

Nicola Sturgeon would use a majority for independence by starting an immediate campaign for a referendum that would dominate Scottish politics for years, to the exclusion of all other issues. It’s worth asking what precisely that would mean.

The issues facing Scots are identical to those faced in England: the Covid-19 crisis is in retreat, but the deep societal damage of a year of lockdowns is increasingly evident. Some 3,550 fewer cancer diagnoses were made in Scotland last year, a fall of nearly 14 per cent. Scotland’s NHS is in no shape to play catch-up: even before the pandemic, waiting times for long-term health procedures were already estimated to be worse than in England. Generally, public services are less well run north of the border.

As for children, lockdown has hit poorest pupils hardest. But already poor pupils in Scotland were little more than half as likely as their English counterparts to get to university. Never have Scots been in more need of focused, effective government. But if they end up with an SNP majority there will be a non-stop campaign for separation; every policy will be used to drive another wedge between Scotland and England.

Sturgeon has admitted to having made no calculations about the economic impact of independence — which is odd, given that independence is her party’s reason for existing. But its chief policy seems to be the suspension of disbelief.

The pandemic is expected to have left Scotland with a deficit of up to 25 per cent of GDP, higher than any other country in the world. Any country joining the European Union needs a deficit no higher than 3 per cent of GDP: independence would mean sado-austerity with cuts far bigger than anything attempted by David Cameron or George Osborne.

Scotland joining the EU would also mean — under EU rules — border controls with England and a consequent hammer blow to trade. North Sea revenues, even if they had not collapsed, would never fill this gap.

By being in the Union during the pandemic, Scotland benefited from the safety net of being in the UK. The furlough scheme was financed by the UK Treasury’s borrowing power. Scotland is now coming out of lockdown due to having vaccination levels that are higher, by some margin, than anywhere on the Continent. By no coincidence, Scotland’s Covid deaths are down by 99 per cent — the same as in England. No European country except Portugal can say the same.

Recovering from the pandemic will take a generation. A vote for the SNP would mean another wasted decade in Scotland, with all political energies being focused on the constitutional question rather than on repairing the damage. Nicola Sturgeon argues that independence is needed to deal with the country’s post-Covid problems. But it is hard to see how Scotland having to cut public spending while not having its own central bank would help address these issues.

The best case for the Union has been made by Anas Sarwar, the new leader of Scottish Labour, in recent weeks. His message is that Scotland needs a recovery, not a referendum. If that message fails, unionists have to face up to the grim truth that, after 14 years in power and despite its dismal record, the SNP has found a way to game the devolution system. By convincing the 45 per cent of pro-independence voters that national liberation lies around the corner, Sturgeon’s party can guarantee itself victory after victory.

Devolution was not intended to deliver independence. As one Labour grandee famously said, it would ‘kill nationalism stone dead’. Even Tony Blair, with his new long hair, now admits that this was a misjudgment: it instead gave secessionists a platform from which to pursue the un-doing of the United Kingdom.

A pro-independence majority next week will take the SNP closer than ever to this goal. If the Tories have any sense of preservation — of the country, and of their party — they should give Scotland their full attention in the remaining days of the campaign.

© Scotland Matters