Arms-length operator plan for Princes Street Gardens put on hold

Plans to hand over control of part of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh to a new 'arms-length company' when a new £25 million concert arena has been completed have been put on hold following the intervention of councillors.

Councillors have halted plans for an arms-length operator to take over Edinburgh's West Princes St Gardens to allow the idea to be publicly debated.
Councillors have halted plans for an arms-length operator to take over Edinburgh's West Princes St Gardens to allow the idea to be publicly debated.

A property developer’s bid to create a new operator to “manage” the historic park beneath Edinburgh Castle as a “pre-requisite” for helping to bankroll new concert facilities will now be subject to a full public consultation.

The Ross Development Trust, which was instigated by Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford to realise his vision of a new concert arena in the gardens, had previously put fundraising and design work on the project on hold until it reached agreement with the council on who would be running the new facilities and the wider garden.

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However heritage bodies, environmental organisations, event organisers and community groups are all expected to now get a say on how the gardens should be run in future as a result of the plans for a “self-financing” operator of the gardens being put on ice.

The plans were put on hold after the Cockburn Association, the city’s long-running heritage body, said it was alarmed that plans for a new arms-length operator were drawn up without any input or involvement of “civic society.”

Director Terry Levinthal, who wrote to the council citing concerns about over-tourism and “commercialisation of open space,” told its culture committee: “West Princes Street Gardens is the heart of the City. It is crucial as an open space and formal gardens, and is as important to the international image of the city as Edinburgh Castle.

"Whilst the philanthropic gift is welcome and in the best tradition of the city, it cannot be used as justification for the erosion of public assets or public accountability.”

Councillors have demanded more time to scrutinise various options for the future management of the gardens, which date back to the 1820s, as well as a business plan for the new concert facilities, could be up and running as early as 2021.

"They have also insisted the gardens should be retained as a “common good” asset for the city and should remain “accessible and welcoming to everyone in the city in perpetuity.”

Council officials had recommended the creation of an arms-length operator similar to Edinburgh Leisure, which runs the city’s sports facilties, and Capital Theatres, which runs the Festival and King’s theatres. It would be responsible for deciding which events are staged in the gardens once the new facilities are open.

Donald Wilson, the council’s culture convener, said: “This will give us time to speak to speak to community community councils, heritage organisations and other interested groups. Everything we’re doing will guarantee access to West Princes Street Gardens. Yhat will not be diminished. We’re trying to work out the best way to do that.”

Speaking after the council’s decision, Mr Levinthal said: “This gives a chance for a proper engagement with the people of Edinburgh, allowing for discussion on the best vehicle to secure improvements.

“Whilst it may be reasonable for the Ross Development Trust council officials to hammer out draft purposes and objectives, it is not appropriate for such a significant change in management to be made with civic engagement. “We will do what we can to help with this process.”

Green councillor Claire Miller said: “I am very pleased to have gained agreement for more detailed analysis of how we manage any philanthropic investment in Princes St Gardens and the Ross Bandstand.

“We are all aware of our responsibility for this world-renowned common good asset that we maintain on behalf of our citizens.

“It’s paramount that the future of the gardens, the bandstand, the fountain and the gardener’s cottage are all safeguarded for generations to come.”

David Ellis, managing director of the Ross Development Trust, said: “The report that went to the committee was really about us asking for the council to give us the confidence that we require in terms of restarting our fundraising and campaign the design work.

“We were looking for confidence that the council was prepared to look at a new way of managing the gardens. The method we came up with was agreed between the trust and the council as the best way to do that. A charitable body running a park is completely different than a private company, especially when it is a public space.”