Edinburgh Book Festival boss furious over George Street bills

Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book FestivalNick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival
Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Organisers of the Edinburgh International Book Festival have accused city council chiefs of hampering efforts to stage events in one of the New Town’s main thoroughfares.

Director Nick Barley said the city was missing an “open goal” to tackle concerns around crowd congestion in the Old Town by not doing more to ensure George Street was full of festival activity rather than traffic in August.

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Mr Barley said the council was making it “impossible” for anyone to stage financially viable activities due to demands they must stump up compensation for lost parking charges. He suggested a five-year event plan to encourage a greater spread of festival activity into the New Town.

Mr Barley also called for more “joined-up thinking=” from the council, which has wants to improve the “pedestrian experience” on George Street and re-sign it to make it more suitable for events. It recently secured £20 million in public money for a long-term overhaul of the area.

However, Mr Barley said the council had to do much more to ensure George Street was completely pedestrianised in August by making it “easy and attractive” for event organisers. The book festival was given the green light to spill out from Charlotte Square on to the west end of George Street for the first time in 2017. However, it is understood the council has since hiked up the cost of staging events on George Street.

Both the book festival and Assembly, Fringe promoters who are running three venues in the street, had lengthy talks to bring down the cost.

Mr Barley said: “We’ve got to find a way to make George Street fully pedestrianised, certainly in August, if not all year round. We’ve got to find more spaces where tourists feel comfortable to take the pressure off the High Street. It’s an open goal in terms of dealing with what people are calling overtourism.”

Mr Barley suggested a full pedestrianisation of George Street did not go ahead this month because other promoters offered space “could not make it add up financially”.

He added: “If part of the council is offering George Street as a place for a pedestrianised space and another part of the council is asking to recoup lost parking charges, that’s not joined-up thinking.

“The council has to make it attractive and easy to use George Street and allow events like ours the opportunity to plan for the long-term. We need a three or five-year guarantee that it will be available. We don’t know in February if we can use it in August.We had significant negotiations to make things remotely feasible this year. The council is making it impossible to deliver financially viable events on George Street. We’re running that part of our event at a loss.”

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Assembly founder William Burdett-Coutts said: “The council says it wants the New Town to become a real hub again in August. Its long-term aim is to close George Street to traffic. The festivals have a key part to play in that. But the council started off with a ridiculous cost for closing the street. It was actually going to be more than hiring the Assembly Rooms, although they later compromised.”

Council leader Adam McVey said: “There is clearly more to be done to manage the impact – and benefits – of the festivals.”