Cliff Hague: Princes St gigs mean curtains for common good

Last year it was ugly black hoardings blocking the public off from views of views of Edinburgh Castle and West Princes Street Gardens for the two weeks of Summer Sessions pop concerts. After a public outcry, the hoardings disappeared.

Benches are off-limits for commercial reasons. Photograph: Juliet Wilson

This summer a cunning plan worthy of Baldrick was devised. Squeeze the pavement space on the south side of Princes St by cordoning off the bench seats there, so people cannot stand on them (or use them as seats!) and install a huge retractable curtain. However, drawing the curtains cannot hide the mess inflicted by this commercialisation of our “public good” gardens.

Last year we were told that the hoardings were necessary for public safety – nothing to do with selling tickets, of course. Granted a free view, crowds would be tempted to gather, and spill off the pavement into the busy roadway, creating an accident risk. This year’s “solution” reduces the pavement space available for pedestrian movement during the most crowded weeks of the year. Result? Where they can, people are walking on the road, exactly the hazard that the hoardings allegedly were devised to avoid.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

A new eyesore has been created: a promenade now resembles a builder’s yard. This being Festival time, it could be passed off as an elongated piece of installation art. Barricading off space, especially alongside bus stops, maximises crowding, causing pedestrian discomfort and real problems for people with disabilities. But remember, it’s for their safety, not to stop people peeping over at the concert without paying. As a spokesperson said, the concert organisers don’t want “passers-by on Princes Street… to congregate”.

How did it come to this? How much more can we expect? In a recent Scotsman article (30 July) I explained how senior council officials and political leaders are formally committed to align City Council activity with “decisions made for the benefit of the tourism sector”. A public consultation last year found that 68 per cent of respondents felt there should be no more than five major events in the gardens in any year. There are nine nights of concerts in Summer Sessions 2019, which run from 7-19 August. Last year there were six. How many will there be in 2020?

The FLY Open Air Festival raves will set up in West Princes St Gardens on 18 September, run three shows 20-22 September, and be clearing up over the next couple of days. From 30 October to 3 November there will be the Oktoberfest tent and live music. Then comes another tickets-only event, Mark Ronson’s Hogmanay in the Gardens, with time either side to set up and de-rig. All these damage the grass, which takes time to recover. In contrast, the annual Festival fireworks concert in the gardens happens one night a year, with free and safe viewing from a closed Princes St, and really does need the castle as its backdrop.

There is a place for pop concerts and other live music events in Edinburgh. It’s just not Princes St Gardens. Surveys repeatedly show that it is the tranquillity and green space that people love about this city centre oasis, in other words the fact that they are a garden. That means there is a strong case for staging concerts somewhere else. The main counter-argument is that the gardens enhance the concert experience, and draw big names who otherwise would not come to Edinburgh. Really? Performing with your back to the castle can’t be that different to doing a gig in any other city. Do performers take a cut in their fee just to play in the gardens? If so, is that passed on in the ticket price, or to the council?

There has been talk of dispersing the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe around the city. Big open air music events are the opportunity to kick-start this. They would have the critical mass to draw other events to cluster near them. Look for a site near the tramlines, to boost sustainable transport. Connect it to a training academy for music industry jobs, and begin to spread the benefits. Free concerts in such a venue could make Edinburgh more inclusive: Bryant Park in Manhattan has daily events open to everyone – no barriers, no hoardings! It can be done.

Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association