Brian Ferguson: Leith becoming an attractive host of festival events

Hidden Door at Leith Theatre
Hidden Door at Leith Theatre
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A bracing weekend walk along Edinburgh’s snow-covered waterfront was certainly one way to shake off any feelings of cabin fever.

Although the route from Leith Docks to Granton was certainly much prettier covered in a blanket of white it was also a reminder of how much land is still to be developed. A combination of the impact of the 2008 property crash and the subsequent cutting short of the first phase of Edinburgh’s tram project has left a grim legacy.

It all looked so different during the previous decade or so with the securing of the Royal Yacht Britannia, the opening of the Malmaison Hotel and the arrival of a vast shopping and leisure complex, Ocean Terminal, which would even have its own tram stop. A pinnacle was reached 15 years ago with the coup to bring the MTV Europe Music Awards to Leith Docks, even though the site did not have a venue. A decade on from the bursting of the waterfront bubble and huge swathes of this area are dominated by ugly waste-ground and gap sites.

But memories of the undoubted success of the city’s MTV coup should still be inspiring thoughts of how to revive the waterfront. A fascinating city council report crossed my desk last week, the issues within it disguised under the deadly dull title of a “public spaces protocol” for the city. It effectively set a series of new ground rules for festival and event organisers seeking to take over outdoor sites.

Somewhat predictably, the rules are significantly tighter over the parts of the city where controversy has reigned in recent years.

This means anyone looking to stage an event in the Grassmarket, the Royal Mile, St Andrew Square and George Street have to jump through far more hoops, face much greater restrictions and have stricter cut-off points imposed on how long they can run for. They will also have to demonstrate their cultural credentials and how they will respect Edinburgh’s world heritage site status.

Most interesting was one of the key principles of the new policy - that a greater spread of activities across the city would be encouraged. Despite much angst within the city over messages that the city is somehow “full” at certain times, it is telling that another official report has highlighted the need for action in fairly stark language, stating: “It is increasingly necessary to manage the intensity of activity in concentrated central areas of the city.” It strikes me that a potential solution is staring the council, the events industry and the tourism sector in the face if only they would look to the waterfront. It has numerous sites capable of housing one-off events and pop-up venues.

A few years ago, this notion would have seemed ridiculous. But things have changed with the gradual gentrification of Leith Walk, the reopening of Leith Theatre, the success of creative hubs like the Biscuit Factory and Custom Lane, and the imaginative use of empty retail spaces at Ocean Terminal. The Edinburgh International Festival is already returning this year - after a 30-year hiatus. A host of other festivals will be staging events in Leith Theatre when the Hidden Door event returns in May, while Irvine Welsh will snub the far grander surroundings of the Usher Hall and the Assembly Rooms to launch the final part of his Trainspotting trilogy at the Biscuit Factory.

Where they are going others will surely follow and the time seems ripe for the city to offer official encouragement and incentives to capitalise on the momentum.