Edinburgh book festival ‘may be forced to move’

THE Edinburgh International Book Festival is being urged to quit its long-time home in the capital’s New Town – because of the “huge” amount of damage being done to its famous setting.

Thousands converge on Charlotte Square every year for the book festival, causing 'degradation' to the garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Thousands converge on Charlotte Square every year for the book festival, causing 'degradation' to the garden. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Organisers are being asked to find an alternative to Charlotte Square Garden, which has been the base for the event since it was launched more than three decades ago.

The Cockburn Association, the city’s most powerful and influential heritage watchdog, is calling for an end to the practice of hiring out its historic garden for events because of the “degradation” they cause.

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The organisation, formed in 1875, says the book festival and high-profile events in St Andrew Square Garden, which it also wants banned, are ruining the “classic New Town architecture” of George Street and the gardens that bookend it.

Director Marion Williams has even urged the book festival to relocate to the city’s waterfront as part of a complete rethink of the staging of major events in the city.

She said the 16-day festival, which attracts more than 220,000 visitors a year, had “outgrown” its site. It started life in 1983 as a biennial celebration, but became an annual fixture in 1997 and now has more than 700 events.

Ms Williams said the Cockburn Association would resist efforts to stage more year-round events in the garden, insisting artificial grass would need to be put down to accommodate proposals being pursued by the Charlotte Square Proprietors Association and business group Essential Edinburgh.

The book festival is allowed free access to Charlotte Square in return for meeting all costs of the event and maintaining the garden, which dates back to 1808.

A £1 million makeover of the garden to make it more suitable for hosting events throughout the year is being explored, amid mounting concern over the condition it is left in after each festival. But Ms Williams said there was a danger it would be “shamelessly rented out to anyone who wants it”, as she says has happened with St Andrew Square.

She added: “You have a classic piece of Georgian New Town architecture with George Street and its two squares. But we are seeing the gradual degradation of that by making them rentable surfaces for private activity. You lose these areas as gardens when that happens.

“The book festival causes huge damage. The garden is only just recovering now and they’ll be going back in there soon. I’d prefer it if it wasn’t in there now. Love it as I do, it’s outgrown it.”

She added: “Edinburgh has so many other places it could go. I think some work should be done on where the best would be. I would love to see the waterfront area developed into a space where all these shows and circuses and everything else could go. The future should definitely lean in that direction.”

Book festival director Nick Barley said: “The festival’s home is Charlotte Square and the garden is synonymous with the success of the book festival. We’re not moving it anywhere.

“All of our visitors and authors tell us every year that they love Charlotte Square Garden and the fact that the festival takes place in the historic Georgian heart of the city.

“The last thing we would do would be to move it away from that vital site. It’s central to the success of what we do. We work very closely with the proprietors of the square and have a great relationship with them. If they decided to open it up to other people, that’s up to them.”

Richard Lewis, the city council’s festivals and events champion, said: “Undoubtedly there will always be one argument for private spaces to remain as they are, and another for them to be made public.

“Edinburgh has been home to some of the greatest authors and stories in the world and you cannot argue with the cultural value of the book festival. The event makes an empty space come to life every year and gives people access to one of the West End’s beauty spots during a month mostly focused on the Old Town.

“Likewise, Essential Edinburgh’s use of St Andrew Square at Christmas allows the winter events – and nearby businesses – to thrive. I don’t think we should simply cordon parts of the city off – it’s important to strike a sensible balance.”