Time to throw out New Town's bin bags?

Submitted by Editor on Sun, 01/11/2009 - 17:50

In May 2005, City of Edinburgh Council (CEC) backed down when its plans for rigid waste containerisation across the New Town met determined resistance, writes Alan McIntosh. Wheelie-bins were impractical, it was argued, and would ruin the elegance and architectural clarity of James Craig’s design.

The New Town, whilst rejoicing in its World Heritage Site (WHS) status, has since become an embarrassment to many who live ankle-deep in fox, rat and gull-strewn household waste, and a source of revolted irritation to those who cross it on foot. Among the latter there is an unfounded but widespread suspicion that aesthetic arguments against wheelie-bins are mere flags of convenience for those concerned at losing parking space.

Something must be done, but what? Claims for railing-mounted sacks or reinforced bin bags sound unconvincing. Underground storage and night-time collection are too  expensive. Sensing its moment, CEC is now ready to look at the problem again, and notwithstanding its apparently careful audit exercise this autumn and consultation in the New Year, it is expected to back pushing much of the WHS into line with the rest of the city. Financial pressures alone may force such a move whether or not CEC eventually privatises rubbish collection.

Opponents of containerisation now find themselves in – among other things – a pickle. For a start, there is an undeniable problem which mars the area they want to protect. Then there is the difficulty of deciding how much of the New Town to defend. Some argue that the entire WHS stands or falls as a single entity. Others are starting to murmur – reluctantly, heretically – that rigid bins would not be too bad on some streets and that different solutions might suit different areas.

Then there is the ticklish matter of consultation and representation. CEC is at least appearing to consult. Disparate residents associations do not have the resources or time to do so on anything like the same scale. It was never clear what proportion of residents originally opposed containerisation. (Surprisingly to some, the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, Cockburn Association, and Gayfield Association were actually in favour.) Now, as public and political unease with the status quo mounts even within the New Town, wheelie-bin phobes will have difficulty claiming to speak for a clear majority.

Since 2004, rigid bins of various dimensions have become common around Broughton, and for the most part have not turned into the stinking buckets of pestilence many feared. On  the contrary, formerly litter-covered roads such as East Claremont Street are now comparatively clean. The bins may not be classically beautiful, but with familiarity they have grown almost invisible. Warnings about their aesthetically ruinous effects are beginning to sound like the voices of past Edinburgh generations who railed at the introduction of indoor water closets. Time and public opinion are probably not on their side.

Who would bet against containerisation for the New Town in the first year after CEC elections?