100,000 people want to know: where was Plan B?

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HOGMANAY was literally a damp squib in Edinburgh and Aberdeen as "bad" weather led to the last-minute cancellation of New Year celebrations, including the traditional fireworks.

The Edinburgh authorities have cited public safety as being of paramount consideration. Indeed it is: had the fireworks display and concert gone ahead, and led to injuries or even deaths viewed on national television, that would have been just as great - if not a greater - public relations disaster for the capital than the abrupt cancellation. However, the criticism being levelled at the city authorities has nothing to do with their legitimate safety consciousness. Rather, it lies in the embarrassing exposure of their lack of a Plan B and the potential this has to ruin Edinburgh’s reputation with visitors.

Consider the problems that emerged with the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, where the aborted public concert was scheduled to take place. Structural damage to the stage caused by the gusting winds and water in the electrical systems made the venue unsafe. Fair enough. But this merely underlies the obsolescence and decrepitude of the ancient bandstand, which is nearly 70 years old. It is a strong argument for the City of Edinburgh Council to invest in a proper entertainment venue that is weatherproof. Peter Irvine, the entertainments promoter behind Edinburgh’s modern Hogmanay celebrations, suggested as much more than four years ago. He argued for the bandstand to be replaced by something to rival the likes of Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens or the Hollywood Bowl. The council made encouraging replies, but progress has been glacial. Had it responded to Mr Irvine with alacrity back in 2000, this year’s Hogmanay celebrations would not have been cancelled.

There is the separate question of the fireworks. Early on Wednesday night, gale-force winds at 1,000ft, where the fireworks would explode, made it impossible to schedule the whole display for exactly midnight. But again, why was there no contingency plan for a more modest display, or even some dramatic laser show as a fall- back? Did the city authorities just keep their fingers crossed that they could entice 100,000 people to the centre of Edinburgh on the off-chance that the weather would be perfect? As it happened, other fireworks were abundant in Edinburgh at midnight, as the weather started to clear. Was a later time for the main event not a possibility?

Hogmanay was Edinburgh’s second flop of 2003. Fewer than 50,000 people paid to attend the Festival of the Sea in May, despite predictions it would attract upwards of 125,000. One failure is bad luck. Two suggest a trend. Edinburgh is in the big league of public events. That means the city will have to pay more attention to detail.