A full-scale review of Edinburgh’s world-famous Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations is to be carried out - as it emerged that new measures to protect Princes Street Gardens from the world-famous events will be put in place this year.
Council chiefs have pledged to give the people of Edinburgh their biggest ever say on the future of festivities which are now more than 20 years old.
A possible re-think, including an overhaul of their public funding, could take effect in 2022 as a result of the “root and branch” probe.
In recent years, more than 900,000 tickets have been sold across events now said to be worth more than £152 million to the economy.
But senior councillors have ordered the review months after the launch of a campaign to “defend” Edinburgh against over-tourism, the privatisation of public space and the impact of “festivalisation.” #
The Cockburn Association, the city’s long-running heritage watchdog recently raised concerns about the gardens being “effectively converted into a funfair” for events.
The current winter festivals organisers, Fringe operators and producers Underbelly, have been given a two-year extension to an existing £813,000-a-year-contract, to run until January 2022.
Under their new agreement, they have agreed to step up efforts to reduce the impact of the winter festivals on the gardens following concerns raised on social media about the lengthy closure of some areas while they recover.
A new-look for the east gardens will be unveiled in the summer as part of an overhaul of the Scottish National Gallery.
Controversy flared last autumn when it emerged that dozens of trees had been felled just before work got underway to build the Christmas market. It emerged that the removal of the trees had been backed by the city council as part of a project to landscape the gardens to help encourage more visitors to the gallery.
It is understood that Underbelly has agreed to meet the extra costs involved in staging the markets in the new-look gardens on condition that this was spread over two years.
The council, rather than Underbelly, will lead the forthcoming review in early 2020 to allow time to put the festivities from 2022 out to tender.
Council culture convener Donald Wilson said: “Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals are internationally renowned, and we should all take great pride in the fact they are recognised and enjoyed by residents as well as visitors, bringing significant financial and cultural benefits to the local economy.
“There are financial imperatives in delivering the Christmas and Hogmanay events.
“However we have to recognise there has been a growing public debate on the role of festivals and events in the city. People can get angry and vociferous if they feel their voice is not being heard.
“This is a good time to re-assess what is being delivered, how well it is being received and whether it is what people actually want.”
Paul Lawrence, director of place at the city council, said: “It’s extremely important that any stakeholder, whether they are a resident or business, who has a view has a chance to have a voice in this process.
“We now have the opportunity to really debate what is required from a cultural, environmental and economic point of view.
“As far as I’m concerned the questions will start with how the city currently celebrates Christmas and Hogmanay and the way it currently works.
“I suspect we’d like to sketch out what some alternatives might look like, what the strengths of the current arrangements are, what some of the publicly-voiced concerns have been and to genuinely to seek out the views of the public and interested stakeholders.
“There will be differing views on this. Our job will be to ensure all voices are heard, not just those shouting the loudest.”
Underbelly took over the running of Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations in 2013 and won the contract to produce it and the Hogmanay festival four years later, ending the involvement of long-time organisers Unique Events.
In a statement, Underbelly directors Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood said: “We’re delighted that our successful delivery of Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay has led to this extension and we can now plan to deliver the best possible celebrations for the people of Edinburgh and our visitors through to January 2022.
“We also welcome the consultation with residents and businesses and look forward to joining in the process.
“Underbelly is committed to creating world-leading cultural events that are financially sustainable and which respect and protect the environment and greenspaces.”
Terry Levinthal, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “We find it a bit odd that a review is announced after the contract extension of two years has been awarded to Underbelly.
“A review should have preceded it so that activity is not locked in if the review suggests a significant diversion from current practice.”
Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: ‘The city’s recently approved tourism policy recognises that ‘distinctiveness and authenticity’ are what attracts people to Edinburgh, that the tourism sector needs to achieve the right ‘balance between a thriving tourism sector and the quality of life of residents’, and that the industry should cause ‘no negative environmental impact’.
“These principles should form the basis of the review - which is of course easier said than done. We’d welcome the opportunity to contribute to the development of the new proposals so that needs our historic environment as well as those of the local communities in both the Old and New Towns are fully respected.”
Green councillor Alex Staniforth: “I think the time is right to consult the city on its winter festivals. With the way the city approaches tourism being examined and in the shadow of climate crisis it’s important our winter festivals are fun for all, sustainable and accessible.”