Edinburgh Festival director eyes ‘waterfront’ venues to ease pressure on city centre

The director of the Edinburgh International Festival wants the capital to look to its waterfront to ease pressure on the city centre during major events.

Fergus Linehan. Picture: PA

Fergus Linehan said the city’s festivals had become “unnecessarily packed” into a small part of the city centre and suggested his programme was likely to cover a much greater geographical area in the run-up to its 75th anniversary in 2022.

Mr Linehan highlighted the lack of a single major cultural venue outwith the heart of the city and said Edinburgh was suffering from the lack of a multi-arts venue.

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However, Mr Linehan said the festival wanted to ensure other parts of the city benefited from the event, in social and educational terms, as well as economically.

He set out ambitions to take the event to new locations in Leith, Portobello, Newhaven and Muirhouse and said the event had already been developing plans to play a part in a year-long celebration of Scotland’s coasts and waters in 2020.

Heritage bodies have been expressing growing concern about the impact of cultural events and the tourism industry on the city’s Old Town.

Earlier this month Edinburgh was named alongside Amsterdam, Rome, Venice and Barcelona as one of the world’s over-tourism hotspots, with “the pressure of huge numbers descending on the city centre” for the festivals cited as a key factor.

A series of festival road closures and parking restrictions have just been rolled out to ease concerns over crowd congestion.

Mr Linehan said: “There are obviously much wider questions around tourism in Edinburgh, of which the festivals are a part.

“These kind of problems wouldn’t go away if the festivals went away. Cities like Prague and Barcelona don’t have these festivals, but they do have these problems. Tourism is not going to stop growing in Edinburgh.

“However, there is an interesting geographical question for us at the moment. On the one hand, some people are saying the festivals have too much impact on them. There are other people who feel the festivals have no impact on them at all.

“I do think we’re too geographically packed into the one space and unnecessarily so. There are all sorts of beautiful and exciting parts of the city that people could go to.

“All the festivals are in the city centre, all the venues are in the city centre.

“We don’t have a single year-round venue operating in Edinburgh outwith the city centre. That’s very rare.

“Edinburgh hasn’t really built any new arts infrastructure over the last half a century. Its geography is also quite unusual – it has an entire coastline that the city isn’t really part of.

“If you are trying to reach a younger, more diverse audience you have to look at where those people actually are. A lot of them are now living between Leith and Newhaven. It would not be beyond people from other parts of the city or visitors to get down there.

“On a practical venue we would love a flexible venue like the Tramway in Glasgow.

“Venues are very much fragmented into different art forms in Edinburgh at the moment. We don’t really have a centre that joins up different art forms.”

The EIF is set to return next month to Leith Theatre, a previous festival venue which lay derelict for decades, for the second year in a row for shows by the likes of Jarvis Cocker, Kate Tempest and Teenage Fanclub.

Mr Linehan, who has agreed to extend his contract until the 2022 festival, said there was little point in the festival looking to take over an empty warehouse or “throwing up a tent” for three weeks only to abandon an area afterwards.

He said the EIF was keen to build on initiatives such as the one which has seen the festival work with schools and community groups in the Gorgie area in the run-up to this weeks’s Hollywood-themed curtain-raiser at Tynecastle Park, which is expected to attract a 15,000 capacity audience.

The stadium will host its first ever concert when the LA Philharmonic Orchestra performs themes from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Superman and Jaws on Friday.

Mr Linehan cited Leith Academy, where some of his staff have been working with pupils and staff over the past year, the North Edinburgh Arts centre in Muirhouse, with which the book festival launched a project this year, and Portobello Town Hall as examples of possible future venues for EIF shows.

Mr Linehan added: “We hope that the concert on Friday night will open up new opportunities for us at Tynecastle.

“We’ve already shown with Leith Theatre that you can move things just a notch out of the city centre and it won’t affect attendances in any way. We’ve been trying to support the permanent reopening of the building. We hope to be back there next year. We love it and the public love it.

“We don’t just want to land into a community. There’s no point in just finding a warehouse somewhere and spending a fortune turning it into a theatre for three weeks and then just leaving.

“Throwing up a tent and taking it down again doesn’t have any real legacy.”