‘Keep Edinburgh festival tax out of council hands’

Charlie Wood, below, has helped the Fringe double in size over a decade. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Charlie Wood, below, has helped the Fringe double in size over a decade. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
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A NEW trust should be set up to raise million of pounds through a festivals tax in Edinburgh, according to one of the city’s major promoters.

Charlie Wood, director of one of the biggest Fringe producers Underbelly, who also mastermind the capital’s Christmas season, said the idea of a visitor levy should be taken out of the hands of the city council.

Charlie Wood'. Picture: David Jensen

Charlie Wood'. Picture: David Jensen

Wood, whose company launched a circus arena on the Meadows this year, said trustees of the new organisation would decide how any funds raised should be distributed.

The radical call has been made in the wake of an official report warning Edinburgh faces relegation from the “premier division” of global events unless funding levels can be maintained in the face of a predicted “fiscal cliff.” Around £10 million a year may have to be raised over the next decade.

Last week the council’s culture leader, Richard Lewis, said there was a definite “need” for an alternative funding system for the festivals, which are worth some £261m to the city’s economy.

He said the council was “aggressively” working on building support for a plan which would see income generated in August ringfenced for events and venue infrastructure.

Mr Wood, who set up Underbelly with Ed Bartlam in a small venue on the Cowgate 15 years ago, has helped the Fringe double in size over the last decade. Underbelly is also in the third year of a contract to produce Edinburgh’s Christmas events.

A new trust could run along similar lines to the arms-length one responsible for the King’s Theatre and Festival Theatre, he said. Both venues are owned by the council.

Mr Wood said: “The council could still have representation on a festivals trust, but this would mean there would be independence from the council when it came to decision-making and the money would be ringfenced.

“Future funding is a big issue for the festival and year-round arts in the city at the moment. It is going to come massively under threat in the next few years because of likely cuts from the council, Creative Scotland and Arts Council England.

“I do think some form of tourism levy should explored. A mandatory scheme would require some form of legislation at Holyrood, but I don’t see why Edinburgh can’t do it on a voluntary basis so that hotels, restaurants and the retail sector can sign up for it at their own choice.

“I would hope the business community would understand the benefit the festivals bring to Edinburgh. I think this would be fair preferable to carving off a small percentage of rates.

“The whole point about this is that businesses would not have to pay any extra. There would be an additional charge of around £1 on a customer’s bill, which they could choose not to pay. I’ve been to other cities around the world that have schemes like this and I’ve been happy to pay.”

However William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Theatre, said: “I think this would be a very hard thing to undertake. On a practical level, I think this would be really tricky to try to introduce.

“People have raised this kind of thing many times before and never managed to pull it off. Whether the city has the capacity and the legal responsibility to achieve it, I don’t know.

“A lot of people in Edinburgh do care about the festivals. Having the capacity for businesses and hotels to sponsor something is probably a good thing, as long as it’s not too draconian.”