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Marching orders

Make Poverty History march - Extensive planning by Edinburgh engineers ensured that last weekend's Make Poverty History march passed off peacefully.Ian Lawrence was on the scene.

More than double the expected number of marchers arrived in Edinburgh for Scotland's largest ever demonstration on Saturday. But the carefully orchestrated police and city council operation comfortably coped with the influx.

In the weeks before the march the council had already played a key role, cutting back the route to minimise disruption to public transport and designing a barrier system to separate demonstrators from pedestrians (News last week).

And on the day representatives from almost every council department - highways, environment, leisure, housing and others - monitored the march and liaised with police from a special control room in the City Chambers.

At their disposal were aerial shots from a fleet of police helicopters and images from 12 CCTV cameras along the route, including a camera trained permanently on the city centre McDonald's - traditionally a focus for anti-capitalist protest.

Estimates had put the likely turnout at 100,000 but as protesters gathered in The Meadows park during the morning it became clear that greater number would be taking to the streets.

Once the march set off on its 3.5km route round the city centre, control room personnel used aerial shots to measure the time taken to empty the park to assess the true figure.

The fi l calculation of 225,000 fell within the planned for range - but only just.

'We had contingency plans for dealing with up to 250,000 people, ' said Edinburgh City Council's senior public safety officer Tom O'Brien. 'Bob Geldof had predicted 1M but we couldn't see how that could be achieved given the train and bus capacity, ' he added. Virgin Trains had no spare rolling stock but Scotrail added extra carriages to its trains and GNER laid on seven extra services to ferry supporters.

A carnival atmosphere prevailed for much of the day, assisted by the deliberately low key police presence, which was pared back to ensure emergency services had access.

A mass of road closures and the diffiulty of negotiating a way through the tide of protesters seemed to deter the local population from venturing out during the day, further minimising disruption.

Normally busy areas, such as Edinburgh's old town, were much quieter than usual - relieving and annoying restaurateurs in almost equal measure.

The confi guration of barriers also encouraged a positive ambience by allowing people to move in and out of the official walking route seemingly at will. 'We designed the barriers for an easy flow of people, but we could close them off very quickly if we needed to, ' said O'Brien.

This was amply illustrated when around 50 demonstrators were isolated and penned in away from the offi cial route following reports of possible trouble.

Speedy police action was also in evidence soon after the march began, when a businesssuited group bearing ironic placards urging more exploitation of the world's poorest appeared at the head of the procession. Small scale scuffl es ensued, but a phalanx of officers swiftly intervened.

As the day wore on, the mood in the control room grew more relaxed. 'The general feeling at the end of the day was fantastic, ' said O'Brien. 'There were only two arrests over the whole day and considering the potential for a lot of trouble it just didn't materialise. The organisers were almost ecstatic.' His work is far from over however, as smaller but potentially more volatile events are planned throughout the week.

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