Edinburgh council chiefs rule out cancelling Underbelly's winter contract - even if probe finds mistakes were made

Share this article
0
Have your say

City council leaders have ruled out ripping up an extended contract handed to an events company to run Edinburgh’s money-spinning winter festivals - even if an internal probe finds mistakes were made in agreeing the controversial decision behind closed doors.

Edinburgh's culture chief, Donald Wilson, said the council was not able to cancel a legally-binding contract to allow Underbelly to stage the Christmas and New Year festivals for another two years.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival will get underway tomorrow with a fire parade from the Old Town to Holywood Park.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival will get underway tomorrow with a fire parade from the Old Town to Holywood Park.

He said a forthcoming review of the two events - which was announced after senior council officials agreed the contract extension with Fringe producers Underbelly - would not take effect until the 2022-23 winter festivals at the earliest.

READ MORE: Call for Underbelly to be stripped of Edinburgh Hogmanay contract after 'bringing council into disrepute'
Underbelly director Charlie Wood said the company did not envisage any scaling back of the two festivals in the next two years - despite criticism of their expanded use in Princes Street Gardens and extra infrastructure used for the Christmas market, as well as a new wristband system for local residents to allow them access to their own homes during the Hogmanay party, introduced to coincide with an expansion of the street party arena.

Mr Wood said he was expected a late rush for tickets still on sale for the 75,000-capacity street party, a Princes Street Gardens concert being headlined by Mark Ronson and the torchlight procession curtain-raiser on Monday night.

It was also claimed that record numbers of people had flocked to the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, despite criticism from heritage organisations and community groups over a failure to secure planning permission and the expanded use of the park this year.

The “root and branch” winter festivals review, announced in June, will give the public their biggest ever say on events which have been running for more than 20 years and are said to generate £152 million for the economy.

Cllr Wilson said: “We took the decision to extend the contract with Underbelly for a further two years. At the moment we have a contract which has been signed and we support. It is delivering very successful Christmas and Hogmanay events. There is no question of us tearing that up.

“It would be inappropriate to pre-judge the review of the events that will be getting underway next year. But the time is right to look at exactly what we are doing and make sure it is in line with what the people of Edinburgh want.”

Councillors ordered an internal investigation into the handling of the winter festival’s after anger erupted over the expansion of the Christmas market in East Princes Street Gardens without planning permission being secured.

Concerns have been raised about why councillors were kept in the dark about the two-year extension to Underbelly’s contract until after it was signed off by senior officials.

Mr Wilson added: “There is a report coming to the council from the chief executive in January which will identify what was done and what should have been done.

“It will look at how decisions were made, whether any mistakes were made and, if that was the case, make sure that they are not made again. I’m awaiting that report with interest.

“In terms of what I am responsible for, I am happy with what has happened, but I will need to look at the full picture. The council is a very large organisation. I didn’t take the decision to extend the contract. But it was my suggestion that we have a full consultation. I want to be much happier that what we are doing is what people want.

“I know the Christmas market has been extremely well attended this year. I’m told that numbers have been well-up and people have been talking about the fact that the management of crowds and access has been a lot better.

“We have to see the full picture before we make up our minds. Part of the problem has been people only looking at one aspect and that overtaking the whole event.”

Mr Wood: “Our position is that there is a contract in place until the start of 2022. We deal with the city council corporately, as a legal identity.

"We have a legally binding contract with the council. We are very much looking forward to doing these events in both 2020 and 2021. In terms of their basic lay-out, we would envisage those events to be the same as this year.

“There is obviously going to be a full consultation about the winter festivals. We will engage with that and will be up to the council and others to decide what they want the shape of those events to be.”