Brian Ferguson: Gardens plan worth considering

Norman Springford have ambitious plans for an 'iconic' venue in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
Norman Springford have ambitious plans for an 'iconic' venue in Princess Street Gardens, Edinburgh. Picture: Jane Barlow
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IT IS just over a week since the powers-that-be in Edinburgh were greeted with yet another damning headline over their stewardship of the cultural sector.

There had already been a prolonged bout of adverse publicity over the condition of the former Royal High School on Calton Hill and a controversial deal to allow it to be turned into a luxury hotel.

When Edinburgh City Council was then accused of allowing the historic Ross Theatre in Princes Street Gardens to decline so much that it now resembles a “bombed-out shelter,” it merely felt like another episode in a different long-running saga.

I was certainly not expecting to report a few days later that the council had been approached by a businessman willing to plough millions of pounds into a new arena for concerts and events. Even more surprisingly, the council’s response to Norman Springford’s decision to go public was cautiously enthusiastic.

He is certainly not advocating a modest refurbishment of the existing building and terraced arena, which dates back to 1935, despite that option being floated by Mark Mackie, the managing director of Regular Music, who had been urging action from the council a few days earlier.

Mr Mackie has seen at first hand the benefits of the £2.1 million project to revive Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Bandstand, which was faced with demolition less than a decade ago, but was restored in time for last summer’s Commonwealth Games.

Mr Springford instead envisages a much more ambitious project that would cost up to £30m, be weather-proof enough to accommodate events all year round, and would boast an “iconic” design that would become a new internationally-recognised symbol of the city.

The founder of the Apex Hotels group, who previously owned the Edinburgh Playhouse, is clearly serious in his intentions, and is also impatient to get on with his latest project.

In his favour is the fact that the council has already agreed in principle to pursue plans for a replacement bandstand – even if it was nine years ago, in the wake of the debacle of the city’s Hogmanay festivities being cancelled at the eleventh hour.

There is no doubt the city would be embarking on a project fraught with potential difficulties if it were to pursue the kind of replacement for the ageing bandstand that Mr Springford envisages – particularly with legal restrictions over new buildings in the gardens.

If, however, he can demonstrate that the project will not need any significant financial input from the council, it certainly seems worthy of serious consideration.

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