New firm poised to control half of Princes St Gardens

Control of half of Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh could be handed by the city council to a new 'arms-length' company when a multi-million pound concert arena is complete.

Artist's impression of the design for the replacement of the Ross Bandstand
Artist's impression of the design for the replacement of the Ross Bandstand

Management of the park which lies beneath Edinburgh Castle will be transferred under a proposed deal with a developer offering to help bankroll a replacement for the Ross Bandstand.

An official report for councillors reveals that “clarity” on the governance and operation of the arena is seen as a “prerequisite” to start fundraising and detailed design work on the £25 million project.

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The new operator would be charged with deciding how many events are held under plans to create a “self-financing” model to run West Princes Street Gardens, which date back to the 1820s, and are expected to host daily events in future.

It will be responsible for the “day to day” management of the gardens, as well as maintaining all the proposed new facilities, including a cafe-bar and corporate hospitality spaces overlooking Edinburgh Castle.

The new company will have a similar model to Edinburgh Leisure, which runs sports centres, Transport for Edinburgh, which is responsible for bus and tram networks, and Capital Theatres, which runs the King’s and Festival theatres.

The setting up of the gardens operator will ensure the new facilities are profitable and do not need a public subsidy, while remaining free of council red tape. It is understood there has been agreement behind the scenes that will also be easier for the firm to attract commercial sponsors and events than if it remained under the control of the council.

It is thought the new company will be able to keep any income from the use of the gardens and the new Ross Pavilion, which will replace the existing structure, which was built in 1935.

However West Princes Street Gardens would remain under the ownership of the council and councillors would have the final say on a “management plan” the new company would be told to adhere to.

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The plan has been published by the council three months after it emerged that the businessman behind the arena had ordered it be put on hold because he was unhappy at the prospect of the authority continuing to run the park.

Norman Springford, the founder of Apex Hotels, said it was essential a “public-private partnership” took charge of the gardens once the new venue, which could be complete by 2021, is up and running.

The impasse had emerged just four months after an arena design was chosen by the Ross Development Trust, which was set up by Springford, and will also be represented on the operator’s board.

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The prospect of a new operator taking control of Princes Street Gardens had not been raised publicly by the council since being approached by Mr Springford with his concert arena vision more than three years ago.

A spokeswoman for the council admitted the idea was “a recent one” put forward in the wake of a series of workshops between the council and the Ross Development Trust, which will lead efforts to draw up detailed designs for the new arena, pursue a planning application and secure enough funding to allow work to start.

Donald Wilson, culture convener at the city council, said: “The redevelopment of the Ross Bandstand will improve the experience in West Princes Street Gardens allowing it to be enjoyed by residents and visitors for generations to come.

“This project has truly captured the public’s imagination and already, we have worked with the Ross Development Trust to successfully complete an international design competition for the new Ross Pavilion, upgrade the Gardeners Cottage, and initiate the restoration of the Ross Fountain.

“If approved, the setting up of an arms length external organisation would be an important next step.

“It would address the key question of the bandstand’s long-term management and see the council create a stable, self-financing operating model for the new venue, which we believe will provide a solid basis for the Ross Development Trust to recommence its fundraising campaign.

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“Importantly, it would ensure the future use embraces the ethos of the original bandstand, while raising and receiving funds in a way the council can’t. We recognise the importance of the bandstand to the city, which is first and foremost a community asset, and the ownership of the gardens and new venue will be retained by the council and people of this city.”

A spokeswoman for the Ross Development Trust said the issue of who would be running the gardens was of “no relevance” to the competition to design the pavilion and visitor centre.

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It said it would comment further after the forthcoming meeting to discuss the proposals which have been published by the council.