Edinburgh faces rat surge due to refuse workers’ strike, warn heritage leaders

Edinburgh faces rat surge due to refuse workers’ strike, warn heritage leaders

Strike over pay leaves city centre bins overflowing, disrupting arts festivals and providing food for vermin

Overflowing bins in street.

Heritage leaders have warned that Edinburgh faces a sharp increase in rat infestations after a refuse workers’ strike resulted in mountains of food waste, overflowing bins and rubbish accumulating in the city centre.

The city’s refuse workers started a 12-day strike last week in an attempt to force Scottish council leaders to improve on a “derisory” 3% pay offer, with the industrial action timed to hit Edinburgh’s fringe and arts festivals, when visitor numbers peak in the city centre.

Public sector unions held a further round of talks with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (Cosla), the umbrella body for the country’s 32 councils, to firm up a new 5% pay offer tabled on Monday. Refuse workers’ strikes are due to spread to other areas, with nursery and school workers taking part early next month.

Terry Levinthal, the director of the Cockburn Association, which champions the city’s architectural heritage, told the BBC he feared the piles of rubbish and overflowing bins would cause a human health problem – a worry backed up by pest control experts.

Seagulls, rats and mice were already a problem. “We’ll see, as a result of it, that in a few weeks’ time there will be a massive expansion in the population of vermin because there is just so much food on offer,” said Levinthal.

Cosla and city leaders are under intense pressure to resolve the dispute, with the Scottish government, Labour and other opposition parties exchanging insults and blaming each other for the crisis.

On Monday, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, batted away complaints that her government had consistently failed to properly fund Scotland’s councils, which made it far harder for them to fund a better offer. “We’ve provided more resources to local authorities to try to facilitate a fairer pay deal,” she said.

The Edinburgh international festival and Edinburgh festival fringe are celebrating their 75th anniversary this year, and had hoped this year’s event would mark a joyous celebration of the arts after two years of Covid lockdowns.

With Edinburgh city centre thronging with festivalgoers, tourists and residents, the strike has left some pavements covered in slicks of food waste, with takeaway food boxes heaped against overflowing bins, bin bags torn open and fringe flyers and food containers filling gutters.

A vast pile of bin bags and open waste in the Grassmarket, a tourist hotspot close to the Royal Mile, offered an unexpected backdrop for a film crew and actors making a new drama series for Netflix on Tuesday. Baby Reindeer is based on Richard Gadd’s hit one-man stage play on the fringe in 2019, about his experiences of being stalked.

Some fringe acts decided to help clean up the streets, fuelling a row with supporters of the strikers who said that intervening was a form of strike-breaking. Businesses in a few hotspots, including the Grassmarket and Royal Mile, have swept and tidied to keep pavements clear.

The Edinburgh Art festival was caught up in that dilemma. At the weekend it tweeted a plan for artists to gather on the Royal Mile at 6pm on Wednesday, and asked people to donate litter pickers. The tweet was quietly deleted, without explanation.

A spokesperson for the festival said it now felt litter-picking events would be “insensitive to striking workers. The cost of living crisis is creating significant and very real stress for many people across the country and collectively we need to ensure that workforces are treated fairly and appropriately. We hope that a resolution can be found soon.”