Brian Ferguson: Festivals must not fear loss of New Town venues

The Edinburgh Book Festival has been asked to reduce its impact on Charlotte Square's gardens: Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The Edinburgh Book Festival has been asked to reduce its impact on Charlotte Square's gardens: Picture: Phil Wilkinson

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If you have seen the film, you will know the line by now: “First there was an opportunity… then there was a betrayal.”

It’s the clever tagline for the T2 Trainspotting sequel that is woven into the plot of Danny Boyle’s movie. Those words have refused to leave my mind since I first saw T2 nearly a month ago – and it’s not just down to the lingering aftereffects of Boyle’s film.

I wrote in this very slot three weeks ago of how T2 offered much food for thought on whether Edinburgh had changed for the better or worse in the two decades since the original ground-breaking movie was released. I pondered then about the creeping gentrification of parts of Leith as well as the regeneration revolution which had swept sections of the city centre.

I thought it telling that a sleek cocktail bar on St Andrew Square was the setting of Mark Renton’s updated “Choose Life” rant against the ills of modern society. A few days later I sat through a couple of presentations on two ongoing developments changing the face of Edinburgh.

By coincidence, both are a swift Renton-style dash from the scene of his latest rant, on the top floor of the Harvey Nichols department store.

The audience of tourism industry delegates would undoubtedly have been impressed by news of the impending Registers and St James developments. Shiny new department stores, luxury apartments, exclusive hotels, chain restaurants and even more cocktail bars are the stuff of dreams for an industry fearful about the impact of Brexit. In the audience was Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour, who is tasked with overseeing the wellbeing of the city’s major events in their 70th birthday year. I wonder if she had an inkling of looming trouble for the Fringe on the doorstep of these developments – or concerns at the other end of the George Street which are exercising the minds of those in charge of the book festival.

It is less than a decade since St Andrew Square Garden was opened to the public for the first time in more than 230 years following a £2.6 million makeover. In recent years the popular public space has become one of the city’s major outdoor arenas for festival events. During the summer it has provided one of the main counter-weights to the temporary venues created around Edinburgh University’s campus, south of the Royal Mile Fringe heartland. And it has led the expansion of the city’s winter festivals through the New Town in recent years.

Yet the square’s owners, who include Standard Life Investments and RBS, want to clamp down on events and return the square to a haven of peace and tranquillity, rather than a muddy field. It is understandable promoters who have developed events in the square are furious at having a race against the clock to find an alternative space for the 70th anniversary season.

The book festival is in a similar pickle over Charlotte Square, where new owners who have taken over 21 townhouses in recent years are unhappy that the garden is pretty much unusable by anyone else outwith August. For the moment at least the owners are content for the festival to stay in Charlotte Square, as long as its impact is curtailed. A task that is likely to be easier said than done may rely on finding a permanent home for some of its venues on George Street.

Edinburgh’s festivals and events have evolved gradually over the last 70 years and have arguably never been in a stronger position.

But as they turn 70 it is obvious that great care must be taken to ensure they are not in any way diminished in the name of progress around them.

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