Eric Milligan: Edinburgh’s cultural scene held back by ‘nimbys’

Eric Milligan has hit out at 'nimbys'. Picture: Greg Macvean

Eric Milligan has hit out at 'nimbys'. Picture: Greg Macvean

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Edinburgh’s cultural scene is being held back by “nimbys” and people “frightened about tomorrow” who are trying to block moves to relax a controversial curb on live music events, according to a former Lord Provost.

Eric Milligan, who is standing down from the city council after more than 40 years in public office, said too many people living in the city wanted a “do not disturb” sign outside their homes.

The current chair of Edinburgh’s licensing board has launched an outspoken attack on opponents of a bid to ease restrictions on venues, accusing them of an “overreaction” by predicting “doom and gloom” if the rules come into line with the rest of Scotland.

Campaigners trying to change a policy that amplified music must be “inaudible” in neighbouring properties were left dismayed after a decision was delayed to give its opponents more of a say.

The possible change would still allow action to be taken over amplified music causing an “audible nuisance” and was put forward after two years of talks with promoters, venue managers and bands who say the city’s rules are among the most stringent in the world.

All but 25 of the 526 responses to an official consultation backed the proposal, which is expected to be introduced as a two-year pilot if it is backed by the licensing board. It has won support from the likes of city-reared Mercury Prize-winning hip-hop trio Young Fathers.

However, community groups representing the Grassmarket, the Southside, the New Town, Stockbridge, Tollcross and Morningside are all fighting the change.

The licensing board’s members voted to delay a decision until later this year to allow a full hearing on the issue after some members said there was a need to build a “consensus” on the issue.

However, Cllr Milligan said there was a danger that “further prevarication” would lead to nothing being done.

He said: “Much as I love this city, there are always a significant number of people who are happy to live here but want to put a sign up saying ‘please do not disturb me’.

“The nature of a vibrant city is that things are going to change and evolve. Everybody that comes along to object to something the council does says ‘This is not an example of nimbyism – but I’m objecting to this in my own back yard’. That’s what happens, I’m afraid.

“There are a lot of people in Edinburgh who are conservative with a small ‘c’. They don’t want change and are frightened about tomorrow because it is going to bring further doom and gloom and spoil our city.

“Edinburgh has grown and developed and is a far more exciting, more complete city as a consequence of changes made in recent years. This has become a big issue because some people have overreacted.”

Almost half of Edinburgh’s musicians say they have suffered problems as a result of the council’s noise policies, according to a recent Edinburgh University-backed survey. It found that live music events were worth around £40 million a year to the city’s economy.

The proposed change is backed by the city’s director of culture, Lynne Halfpenny, to ensure a “fair balance” between music venues and residential neighbours which would allow them “room to co-exist”.

She said a relaxation of the existing rule would mean the “positive” approach taken to amplified noise during the city’s festivals would instead apply throughout the whole year.

Cllr Milligan added: “The change being sought is not a great one. There would be a very slight relaxation, but rigorous control would remain over any sound breaking out from licensed premises.

“Taken to its extreme, the current policy can be interpreted as being if one person objects then somehow or other there is an issue that has to be addressed. Every licensed premises almost has to show that it is like a sealed unit at the moment. I understand it is inhibiting a number of people in the artistic world who believe we’re damaging the interests of live music by having such a restrictive policy.

“I just don’t want to drag things on and on. In my experience, the longer you do that, you eventually wear yourself out and do nothing.”

City culture leader Richard Lewis suggested some members of the licensing board had an agenda to “talk the thing to death”.

He said: “We’ve spent two years engaging with the music community and trying to find a way forward in line with other local authorities. We are the outliers at the moment when we’re a city that should be enouraging people into our venues.

“The delay seems crazy for a tiny change for a two-year pilot. If it turns out to be the kind of world catastrophe that community councillors are trying to suggest we’ve got the ability to come back from that.

“My concern is we’ll be speculating on the outcome when we should just be getting on with it. This is a conservative approach which would allay some of the fears of the music industry.

“We’d also be moving from a position where there is no conversation at all to a situation where we can find a way to live together. It’s going from an almost right-wing, intolerant approach to one which is about engaging with each other.”

Nick Stewart, manager of Sneaky Pete’s in the Cowgate, has been involved in a “Music is Audible” taskforce instigated by the city council to try to resolve longstanding complaints about the noise restrictions.

He said: “I’m disappointed that the members of the licensing board didn’t show the courage of their convictions and debate this issue themselves. I am certain they’ve had ample reports and presentations from which to make an informed decision – after all, this process began around two years ago.

“I agree with Cllr Milligan that this is quite a minor change. It’s the result of nearly two years of work to find a wording that would work best for everyone, based in the law and founded on a mountain of research. We won’t compromise the work that we’ve done so far.”

Edinburgh-based music tourism expert Olaf Furniss said: “The music community has positively engaged with all who have been willing to listen and it is regrettable that things have been delayed after so much work went into providing credible, research-based evidence.”

However, Jonathan Finn, licensing convenor for New Town and Broughton Community Council, said: “We’re not against encouraging live music, but feel the proposed wording doesn’t achieve this aim as it doesn’t differentiate between live and recorded music. This is a serious flaw.”

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