IT may still be a good six months away but Edinburgh’s main festivals already have up to a whole summer’s worth of stories this year. At times it has felt like there has been news coming thick and fast every other day – and the truth is not so far removed.
For those charged with ensuring that Edinburgh remains the world-leading festival city – the long-standing selling-point the Scottish capital has promoted around the world – it has been a decidedly mixed bag.
The growing challenges over the city centre’s ability to cope with the influx of visitors in August were laid bare in two official reports last month. None of the issues were new and evidence they have become acute has been there for all to see in recent years. With the council admitting roads, pavements, public transport and attractions are struggling with festival crowds, the status quo is not an option.
Since the start of the year both the Fringe and Edinburgh Castle have revealed significant changes are coming this summer in the way they handle crowds. Others will no doubt follow suit. The council is heavily hinting that the way traffic is allowed to fly around the city centre is also set for a big shake-up in the near future. In theory, this should mean a safer, more pedestrian-friendly city centre, with fewer “bottle-necks” and more space for events, but with traffic running more freely.
However, the biggest blow for Edinburgh’s cultural landscape came with the long-awaited funding decisions from Creative Scotland. The most pessimistic observers would not have predicted the Fringe Society, the King’s Theatre, the Festival Theatre and the Edinburgh Unesco City of Literature Trust would be stripped of long-term funding deals. Fringe chief Shona McCarthy has been outspoken about her 100 per cent cut after another record-breaking year, at a time when she is stepping up efforts to bring in new hard-to-reach local audiences. In a speech last week, she suggested the Fringe was being “taken for granted” in some quarters and made it clear it could not deliver on its ambitions without “renewed public and private support and investment”. Although careful not to name Creative Scotland, no-one was in any doubt about who she meant when she said: “Disinvesting in success does not make sense.”
The city council also had some justification to be aggrieved at Creative Scotland’s cuts, which came in the wake of the local authority and the government agreeing to put another £5 million each into the festivals over the next five years. Despite the undoubted pressures on its own finances, the council also guaranteed support for three long-awaited projects which have all moved on significantly in the last 12 months.
The festivals landscape will look very different within the next few years with a reopened Leith Theatre, a revamped King’s Theatre and the brand-new Impact Centre concert hall in the New Town. More immediately, a big change is coming to Princes Street Gardens this August with the welcome return of outdoor concerts beneath the castle. DF Concerts are planning up to eight pop and rock shows – more than have been staged there over the last decade outwith Hogmanay – in what looks like a canny move ahead of the neglected Ross Bandstand being replaced.
Although there have been predictable howls of anguish from some – ignoring the fact live music has been performed there since the mid-19th century – it will return major musical acts to their rightful place at the heart of the Fringe – and inject real energy into the New Town.