Edinburgh’s council leader has suggested a major rethink of the city’s Hogmanay celebrations could see it scaled back from its global “bucket list” status - as organisers admitted they were dismayed at the “extraordinary” levels of negativity around the event with the eyes of the world on the city.
Adam McVey, who spoke out hours after an online petition was launched calling on the city’s youngest ever council leader to quit over the handling of the city’s winter festivals, said it would be “perfectly legitimate” for Edinburgh to have a different model for its new year festivities in future.
He also suggested politicians would need to be “more involved” in how they are run in future.
The ongoing Christmas and Hogmanay festivities have been dogged by controversies over a new wristband system for local residents, the impact of event infrastructure on the city centre, and the removal of a traditional Nativity scene and the city’s Norwegian Christmas tree to make way for a whisky sponsor’s branding.
Festival producers Underbelly issued a rallying cry in the run-up to the bells to urge stakeholders in the city to get behind the Hogmanay celebrations, warning that cities around the world were trying to emulate Edinburgh’s three-day festivities, which are being staged for the 27th time.
Hotel industry chiefs have also warned that complaints about the city’s Christmas and Hogmanay events are running the risk of Edinburgh being seen as an “anti-tourist” city around the world.
However Mr McVey said there there were “enormously diverging views” about the benefits of the events, which are said to be worth more than £150 million to the city. He admitted he had no idea how much profit was generated from the events by Underbelly.
He admitted there was no prospect of reaching “consensus” over what form they should take - but insisted future organisers of the festivities would have to reflect the city’s “changing aspirations.”
Councillors agreed a new tourism policy in May which pledges to achieve the right balance between a thriving tourism economy and the quality of life for residents.”
An official report on the industry, revealed in the summer, called for festivals and events to be more “carefully managed” in future to reduce the risk of the city reaching a “tipping point” over the way residents feel about visitors.
A 10-year blueprint for the future of tourism in Edinburgh, published in November, called for the city’s heritage to be “cherished and cared for as a fundamental aspect of the city’s character”.
Controversy has flared repeatedly over the winter festivals since councillors were kept in the dark over a decision in June by senior officials to award Underbelly a two-year extension to a£800,000-a-year contract to run the events.
When the deal, which gives Underbelly control of the festivals until the start of 2022, was disclosed, the council announced a “root and branch review” of the events would take place throughout 2020.
Underbelly were given the green light by council officials to roll out a major expansion of the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, even though major new infrastructure did not have planning permission.
There have been concerns about the need for residents inside the official street party “arena” to apply for new wristbands and ask for permission to have house guests.
Church leaders criticised the early dismantling of the city’s traditional Nativity sculpture and Norwegian Christmas tree from the top of The Mound to make way for promotional branding for headline sponsors Johnnie Walker.
Mr McVey told BBC Scotland: “Edinburgh absolutely has to be a civic space for its residents all year round. The conversation we are going to have with the city in 2020 is all about what shape that takes.
“Do we want to be a city where our Hogmanay celebrations and our street party are on bucket lists for people throughout the globe, or do we want a different model? It is perfectly legitimate for this city to take a different model.
“The fundamental thing that we all have to do is listen to what each other’s aspirations and concerns are.
“I want to actually listening to what the city wants and listening to what the industry needs and work how how to get to as close as consensus as possible.
“We’re not going to get a consensus in the city as there are enormously diverging views one way and the other. That is very clear. There’s no one view to coalesce around.”
'We adore this city'
Underbelly director Ed Bartlam insisted that the company was “only trying to do the best for the city."
Speaking at the official launch of the festival, he said: “We adore this city. We adore this festival. It is not always easy.
“We are only trying to do the best for this city that we possibly can.
"We make mistakes along the way and we try to learn from those, but we are only trying to do the best for the city, which has never looked more beautiful.
“There are literally hundreds of thousands of people out there, residents and visitors, people of all ages, from all over the world, everybody here to celebrate looking at the city, being part of the city, being happy, buying from local businesses, going to local attractions and being in it together.
“When the world looks on Edinburgh, the home of Hogmanay, at this time of year, when every other city in the world is celebrating and trying to do what Edinburgh does brilliantly, when people are coming together, we find it extraordinary and sad that some people still don’t want to get behind the city and the positivity and celebration.
"The world is watching and listening. If ever there is a time to come together and show the world what Edinburgh and Scotland means, a celebration of positive spirit, this is the time.
“I ask you as stakeholders, as key people in the city, to go out and spread that positive message of what this festival is about. It is nothing to do with Underbelly.
"It is Edinburgh’s amazing festival and we should all be proud and positive about it.”