Brian Ferguson: Success punished in Edinburgh cuts

Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party will be extended to the Royal Mile this year. Picture: Jane Barlow
Edinburgh's Hogmanay street party will be extended to the Royal Mile this year. Picture: Jane Barlow
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THERE ARE signs that funding cuts in Edinburgh will see the successful punished, writes Brian Ferguson

The surroundings could not have been grander or more fitting for the occasion. Such was the transformation of the 19th century Signet Library, one of the finest buildings to be found on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, that it looked as if it was about to host a lavish ball.

Instead, the early-morning buzz was being generated by several hundred guests mulling over Edinburgh’s three-day Hogmanay programme.

When I was briefed about the plans for this year by events impresario Pete Irvine, whose company Unique Events has been at the helm of the festival since its inception in 1993, I was impressed.

It is no easy task to keep the essential elements intact while rethinking the whole event to keep it fresh and appealing enough to attract a substantial local audience. This year, there was also a clear need to revamp the street party following serious congestion problems last Hogmanay.

Despite bizarre assurances at the time from Unique Events, the police and the council that everything had gone swimmingly, major changes have been introduced this year to free up substantially more space, including removing many food and drink vans, creating a new stage off Princes Street and taking a funfair off Princes Street.

But the most radical one, which inspired the location for last week’s programme launch, will see the Royal Mile brought back into the Hogmanay fold for the first time in 16 years. The relocation of a hugely-successful open-air ceilidh to Parliament Square and the High Street will restore traditional celebrations to the historic heart of the city.

With the main Hogmanay concert, featuring Biffy Clyro and Idlewild, already sold out tickets for events like the street party and the ceilidh are expected to be in the highest demands for years.

How infuriating it must have been for Mr Irvine to have the city council effectively burst the balloons at its own party by revealing, just before the launch event, that the winter festivals had been targeted for a substantial cut in its budget plans.

Its first significant response to an official study warning that Edinburgh risks losing its “premier division” place if it fails to maintain funding for its flagship events has proposed the exact opposite.

Four months after agreeing an extension to the joint £1.3m contract shared between Unique Events and Christmas producers Underbelly, the council is proposing tearing up the deal and lopping £500,000 off a new contract.

What makes matters worse is that the council both helped instigate and endorsed the wide-ranging recommendations of the report, which included a warning to the city not to become “complacent”.

The defence from Richard Lewis, the council’s new culture convenor, was dismal. His officials have assured him, he says, that the winter events can be delivered on the same scale for £500,000 less.

This idea was dismissed out of hand by Mr Irvine, who knows a thing or two about staging events after more than four decades in the business.

There may be a feeling in the council that bankrolling a six-week winter festival is a luxury it can no longer afford. But these events are worth more than £240 million to the city, almost as much as the most recent valuation for the summer festivals.

The council is also proposing a cut of £123,000 from the £769,000 funding it allocates to the Festival and King’s theatres, which have seen audiences booming in recent years. The trust which runs them on behalf of the city has turned a £935,000 deficit four years ago into a £172,000 surplus.

It is early days in the council’s budget planning but the scale of these cuts must deeply worry other festivals and arts organisations which are reliant on public funding. And it is hard to avoid the impression that those in the firing line so far are being unduly punished for success.