Public kept in dark for nearly two months over Hogmanay ban

The view of the Hogmanay fireworks from Calton Hill  was not an option last year. Picture: Jane Barlow
The view of the Hogmanay fireworks from Calton Hill was not an option last year. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THE PUBLIC were kept in the dark for almost eight weeks over controversial plans to close off one of Edinburgh’s most popular vantage for its Hogmanay celebrations.

Secret plans to seal off Calton Hill were agreed by council officials, police chiefs and the organisers of the festivities in the first week of November - but were not announced until just before Christmas.

The ban, announced on 22 December, was said to have been decided by the council with the backing of Unique Events and Police Scotland. But senior councillors and officials were left out of the loop, according to documents released under freedom of information laws.

Council leader Andrew Burns and Alastair Maclean, then deputy chief executive, were among those unaware who made the final decision and the thinking behind it.

The surprise move, blamed on fears for the safety of revellers who traditionally flocked to the historic spot, sparked an angry backlash amid claims it was influenced by the need to boost ticket sales for the Princes Street event. However an internal council memo stated the authority could not afford the “significant financial resource” needed to make Calton Hill safe.

A ban was proposed by event producers Unique Events at a time when tens of thousands of tickets were unsold. They raised concerns about the volume of people who had been gathering on Calton Hill - one of the main firing points for the midnight fireworks - when it was outside the main arena.

A memo from the firm, which has staged the festivities since 1993, stated there was a danger of the Calton Hill fireworks being cancelled if there people gathered there were at risk of being hit by debris.

The documents have revealed widespread confusion behind the scenes about the justification for closing Calton Hill and concern about how to defend the decision when crowds had gathered there for 22 years previously.

Officials spent a week debating how to word the announcement of the move, amid concerns that it could be linked to security fears in the wake of the Paris terror attacks or lead to the council being seen as “nasty” for imposing a ban.

There was further turmoil when critics challenged the right to enforce a ban - forcing the council to take legal steps hours before the event. Council officials even considered banning film crews and photographers from Calton Hill at one point - even though iconic images of Edinburgh Castle and the Princes Street party captured there are beamed around the world.

The council, which insisted Calton Hill was deemed a “health and safety risk” for the most recent Hogmanay festivities, insisted no decision had taken over this year’s event.

A spokeswoman said: “The protection of the public was our key priority during the closure of Calton Hill on Hogmanay. A joint decision was made to secure the area for safety reasons.”

The council spokeswoman admitted that councillors had not been informed of the decision until it was made public on 22 December, but said officers planned to give “further notice” of decision-making over this year’s event.

A spokesman for Unique Events said: “As event producers, safety for audiences viewing the midnight fireworks across the city is paramount and we support any decision to ensure that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay continues to be a safe and memorable experience for all spectating.”