Edinburgh fears festival decline without funding

Steve Cardownie: "You've got to keep eyes on the competition". Picture: Julie Bull
Steve Cardownie: "You've got to keep eyes on the competition". Picture: Julie Bull
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CITY leaders in the Scottish capital have mounted a robust defence of their “lifeblood” funding for its main festivals - warning they could end up in a “spiral of decline” without significant financial backing.

Senior council figures have described the £4.15 million spent on Edinburgh’s flagship events as a crucial “investment” which would destabilise the city’s economy if it was removed or drastically reduced.

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And it has warned that extra support is needed for events like the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe, and the city’s celebrations of film, books, jazz and visual art if they are to remain in “pole position” ahead of international rivals.

The council, which has been heavily involved with the Edinburgh Festival since it was first held in 1947, has spoken out after it emerged more than £10 million worth of spending plans from Edinburgh’s festivals for the next three years have been rejected from national arts agency Creative Scotland.

Although funding for the city’s festivals has been ring-fenced by the council for the forthcoming financial year, their future backing has been in doubt under a wide-ranging budget-cutting exercise the local authority has embarked on.

However background papers prepared by council officials warn that if grants for festivals are significantly cut, ticket prices would have to rise, public and private sector support would dwindle, sponsorship would fall away, and Edinburgh’s reputation as a cultural capital would be “seriously diminished”.

One document, seen by The Scotsman, states: “Every pound invested by the council in cultural services generates 12 times as much spending in the city’s economy.

“Cutting the cultural spending would negatively impact the city’s economy and could result in unemployment and a decline in visitor numbers.

“The economic, employment and social impact of these reductions to the overall cultural infrastructure would be very significant.”

Steve Cardownie, the council’s festivals and events champion, insisted the festivals - which generate an estimated £261 million for the national economy each year - had suffered from “under-investment”.

He has even compared the city’s current position to Sir Alex Ferguson’s long-running reign as manager of Manchester United, saying Edinburgh would be making a mistake if it failed to invest properly in its major events while they were at the top.

Cllr Cardownie said: “We’ve always been of the view that there’s no way we can sit back and think that because we have a successful formula at the moment that that’ll always be the case. You’ve got to keep your eyes on the competition as they recognise just what festivals and events can do for the cities that host them.

“The figures are all there for people to see - they can be a real trigger for local economies. We’re well aware of that. That’s why we regard these grants as investments, rather than money which is just given to them.

“They’re important for Edinburgh’s reputation, they’re known throughout the world as being second to none, they keep Edinburgh under the global spotlight, and maintain and enhance the city’s reputation as a must-go-to place.

“There’s no doubt that as budgets get tighter, our festivals and events budget will come under increased scrutiny. People will possibly be asking questions about our festivals and events, who they’re for, and whether they’re seen as something that’s merely desirable to have. However we’re of the view that they’re essential for the local economy and the life of the city.

“If they’re unable to maintain excellence, and if their programmes are not as eclectic and vibrant as they once were, they could end up on a slippery slope and get caught in a spiral of decline.”

The Scotsman revealed yesterday how the Edinburgh International Festival and the Fringe had been left on standstill funding for the next three years by Creative Scotland, despite asking for significant increases, while the city’s jazz and Mela festivals have been frozen out completely.

The blow emerged just months after the quango and the council agreed to help fund a major new study into the long-term future of Edinburgh’s festivals and what needed to be done to ensure the city retain its status as “the world’s leading festival city.”

Cllr Cardownie added: “There’s always been under-investment in these events, there’s no doubt about that. That’s why these festivals say they could do with more money. They can see what they could do.

“In order to maintain pole position, our festivals are always looking to develop and improve where they possibly can, enhance and expand their programmes, and seek out new audiences. I’m sure the requests for funding from Creative Scotland that have been unsuccessful must have followed that theme, This is definitely going to make life more difficult for them.

“The best time to invest is when you’re at the top. Sir Alex Ferguson would be the best person to tell you that. You don’t wait until you’re slipping down the league to then try and catch back up. You try to maintain your position.”

A spokeswoman for Creative Scotland pointed out that it was helping to fund the study which will map out recommendations for the future of Edinburgh’s festivals over the next 10 years.

She added: “We were pleased to award £23 million to organisations that deliver seven of Edinburgh’s festivals and we continue to work with the other festivals regarding alternative funding avenues.”

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