Warning for Edinburgh Festival’s funding plea

Richard Lewis said festival's contribution to the economy did not go into the council's coffers. Picture: Seven Scott Taylor
Richard Lewis said festival's contribution to the economy did not go into the council's coffers. Picture: Seven Scott Taylor
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THE Edinburgh International Festival has been warned it is “utterly unrealistic” to expect substantial sums of new public funding to be ploughed into the event.

The city’s new festivals champion said he would be “laughed at” by his colleagues if he was to argue for extra investment while the local authority is trying to make tens of millions of pounds worth of savings.

Richard Lewis, who has worked across Europe as a freelance musician and conductor, has replaced SNP colleague Steve Cardownie as “festivals tsar” after his surprise decision to stand down as deputy council leader.

Mr Lewis said it was “very difficult” to see where the council could find additional funding for the city’s festivals, even though they are worth £261 million to the economy. He suggested the Scottish Government may have to approve some form of tourist tax to address fears over the future of Scotland’s flagship cultural event.

Mr Lewis was speaking weeks after Fergus Linehan, the new director of the EIF, warned the event faced slipping “down a division” unless it could attract major new financial backing. The Irishman, who took over the event in September, told The Scotsman it faces “death by a thousand cuts” if it is left on standstill funding.

His language is similar to that of his predecessor, Sir Jonathan Mills, who took over a time of unprecedented financial crisis in 2006. Although initially successful in securing extra funding and wiping out a substantial debt, Mr Linehan insists the EIF has had its funding shrunk annually for the past seven years because it has not risen in line with inflation. In relation to the EIF’s opera programme, Mr Linehan said his current budget meant it was “set up to disappoint” audiences.

However Mr Lewis said: “It is unrealistic to expect any substantial increase in the festival’s funding. The difficulty is that as well as the EIF, we fund other events, as well as theatres like the Traverse and the Royal Lyceum, which have both just had substantial cuts from Creative Scotland. We have to balance the Festival’s interests against year-round organisations.

“Between ourselves and Creative Scotland, we give £5m to the EIF, which is able to lever in another £10m. It’s not the same sort of money other festivals like Salzburg and Avignon have to spend, but it’s a different sort of festival.

“The costs of staging opera have gone up exorbitantly. It is just not realistic for the council to put a substantial amount of additional money into opera. As a politician, if I was to put that argument at the moment I would be laughed at.

“For me, it’s about bringing the music and the artists to the city. If it means you don’t necessarily have the ability to bring the full staging that is less of a priority than making sure people have the opportunity to experience the work.

“There’s a great deal of understanding that the festivals bring in a lot of money and put Edinburgh on the map internationally. But we also have to handle the situation as we find it. We’ve got to save £67m in the next three years. The festivals may bring in £261m, but it doesn’t come into our coffers.”

Mr Linehan told The Scotsman: “We need the same amount of money in real terms just to stay at the same scale. The inflationary increases are so insidious. Over a year or two they don’t make much difference, but over five or ten years you start to lose hard cash. You start going: ‘We can’t do that this year because we’re down.’

“It’s all about trying to get a great bunch of artists to create a great piece of work and pay them properly. That’s where you then get kicked in the teeth.”

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