Edinburgh promoter cries foul on fair ride ‘blackmail’

FOR more than a century the Showmen’s Guild of Britain has represented the nation’s travelling showmen and ensured the orderly running of funfairs around the country.

The Star Flyer next to the Scott Monument. Picture: Scott Louden
The Star Flyer next to the Scott Monument. Picture: Scott Louden

But members of the guild have now been accused of holding the city of Edinburgh to ransom after a turf war broke out between the governing body and rival event promoters in the capital.

The row began when promoters vowed to overhaul the city’s “tacky” Christmas festival by introducing new attractions, including the Star Flyer, and banishing older fairground rides from the city centre sites.

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But the guild hit back when it discovered that the operators of the new attractions fell foul of the strict Showmen’s Guild “code of rules”, which includes having “established rights” to certain sites.

M&D Leisure, a guild member and operator of Scotland’s biggest funfair, in Lanarkshire, accused the other operators of breaching its established “prior rights” on the sites. The Showmen’s Guild ruled in M&D’s favour and threatened to impose fines of more than £70,000.

However, promoters for Underbelly, the body behind the Star Flyer and other winter festival attractions, argued that the guild’s fines have no legal basis and refused to pay.

Underbelly director Charlie Wood has claimed the guild’s rules are “restrictive practices”, “anti-competitive” and threaten the future quality of events which attracted 3.6 million people into the two key sites last year.

The guild, which represents 20,000 fairground families, claims it is recognised across the UK as the “negotiating body for travelling showmen”. George Codona, chairman of the guild’s Scottish branch, says its rules were introduced 125 years ago to “prevent fisticuffs” between rival fairground operators and were still used to minimise the number of disputes.

He said he could not remember the guild ever having to impose fines in Scotland in his lifetime, but added: “I’m sure this will be resolved amicably.”

The guild is now expected to appoint a QC to act as an independent adjudicator after the operators of four rides vowed to fight the fines.

Underbelly and Unique Events, who produce the capital’s Hogmanay festival, were awarded a three-year contract, worth £3.9 million, by Edinburgh City Council two years ago. Wood said the operators had only so far been threatened with fines for the 2013-14 season, but had been warned the fines were likely to double for last year’s season and would be unlimited if imposed a third time.

“When the members of the guild set a fair up or put an attraction down on a piece of land they can put a claim of prior rights on it. If someone else comes along and puts their rides on it the following year they can take their case to the guild and they can be fined,” said Wood. “These are restrictive practices, they are anti-competitive and would be unenforceable in any court.

“When we got the contract to run Edinburgh’s Christmas it became clear M&D were not going to be able to bring in the new and better rides that we wanted so I looked elsewhere to other people within the UK.

“M&D and the guild are now trying to hold us and by extension the city to ransom. They are holding a gun to the head of Edinburgh’s Christmas.”

Edinburgh City Council told Scotland on Sunday that although it was aware of the Showmen’s Guild, it had no affiliation with the organisation. More than 541,000 tickets were sold for the most recent Edinburgh’s Christmas events – an increase of 40 per cent on the previous year.

No-one from M&D Leisure was available to comment.