Brian Ferguson: Excellent report card for the Festival – for now

Performer interacts with the public at the Edinburgh Festival Carnival. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Performer interacts with the public at the Edinburgh Festival Carnival. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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Walking up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile at 10am in late July there is no mistaking the feeling that something big is in the air.

Buskers and street entertainers are already plying their trade, while drivers navigate through the bustling crowds to make their early-morning deliveries. All across Edinburgh, familiar venues are being re-assembled and prepared for the month-long festivities which will be in full cry this time next week.

This weekend I managed to sneak in another brief island odyssey to catch a few more breaths of fresh air and take stock before it all kicks off. Stepping out of the Edinburgh bubble just before it expands dramatically allows for a bit of reflection on Scotland’s biggest cultural extravaganza.

Organisers of the festivals are entitled to feel somewhat emboldened by the latest research on the spin-offs from the city’s main events.

It revealed for the first time that the festivals are supporting more than 6,000 jobs, worth a record £313 million to the economy and have broken the 4.5 million audience barrier.

A key statistic unsurprisingly seized on by Festivals Edinburgh – the body which commissioned the first research – was that almost 90 per cent of local people felt that the city’s flagship events increased their pride in their own city.

But for me, two other figures leapt off the page of the report: Some 92 per cent of those quizzed felt that the festivals gave them the opportunity to experience something they would not otherwise get the chance to see. And more than two-thirds of people who took part in the research – which was cleverly released just before the main Edinburgh festivals get under way this year – said their attendance at these shows made them more likely to attend other cultural events.

I will not be surprised to hear these figures repeated on numerous occasions over the next month, when the capital’s major festivals are held for the 70th time, the city plays host to an international cultural summit and Edinburgh steps in the global limelight for the first time since the Brexit vote.

Despite the buoyant report card and massive influx of visitors and performers to the city this week, it is an uncertain time, with the fall-out from the EU referendum hanging over the festivals, the collapse of the Edinburgh Mela and the never-ending wrangling over a possible tourist tax.

Creative Scotland, which provides direct funding for most of Edinburgh’s festivals, is already warning of darker times ahead in the post-­Brexit cultural landscape after having its own funding from the government cut by 3.6 per cent last year.

It did not escape my attention that it was Nicola Sturgeon’s name – and not that of her Culture and Tourism Secretary Fiona Hyslop – that was on the Scottish Government’s response to the research for Festivals Edinburgh, hailing the “huge economic impact” of the city’s events.

Senior festival figures will be hoping this will mean the Scottish Government can at least be persuaded to resist any further cuts for their events – after a reduction of around 10 per cent in the dedicated Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, which provides crucial funding for major productions and programme elements.

If this is not the case and those much-discussed “alternative funding options” for the festivals cannot be found, then those benefits may soon start to shrink away.

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