Does Edinburgh want to be a theme park? – Stephen Jardine

The capital is paying a high price for this Christmas and New Year fiasco, writes Stephen Jardine

Underbelly trumpeting the fact that the Loony Dook was 'sold out' was the final straw for many Edinburgh residents. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Underbelly trumpeting the fact that the Loony Dook was 'sold out' was the final straw for many Edinburgh residents. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The start of a new year is the ideal time to look in the mirror and take stock. Having discovered brandy butter on toast over the holidays, I’m doing that reluctantly but there are bigger issues than my waistline to contend with in 2020.

In the run-up to Christmas, the organisers of Edinburgh’s Winter Festival faced a storm of protest over the scale of the operation and the impact it had on the city.

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Not chastened by that, Underbelly then blundered into a row about access rights for residents during the street party.

Just when you hoped their ineptitude was packed away with the decorations for another year, Underbelly announced the traditional Loony Dook was sold out at £12 a ticket. Two old Etonians trying to tell the people of Edinburgh they can’t go for a swim with a raging hangover was never going to go down well and predictably it unleashed a massive backlash social media.

It may prove to be the final straw for the whole Underbelly Christmas and New Year fiasco. Taking control of vast swathes of the city centre is one thing. Trying to own the sea is something else.

Back in early December, opposition politicians started the pushback against the way Edinburgh is being pillaged but city council leaders continued to back Underbelly at that stage. Now the cracks are starting to show. Just before Hogmanay council leader Adam McVey took to Twitter to accept many of the criticisms and to announce a city-wide review of events.

But how much credibility does that have? The planning debacle that surrounded the run-up to the opening of the Christmas Market suggests the council might not be best equipped to carry out an objective assessment of this whole fiasco. Also, anyone familiar with the slow machinations of the City Chambers will realise Underbelly will be well advanced with plans for next Christmas and New Year before any decisions are taken.

Instead heritage organisation the Cockburn Association has called a public summit for later this month to discuss the commercialisation of public spaces in Edinburgh and to agree a better way forward. That is a timely start of the conversation.

Alongside that, Mike Small’s Citizen organisation has issued a blueprint for reimagining Christmas and Hogmanay as celebrations that actually reflect Edinburgh and work positively for the city and local people.

Surely that’s what this should be about? Any criticism of the monster behemoth that Underbelly have created provokes a blizzard of economic data about bed nights and average spend. But no-one is suggesting that December should be reduced to a tree at The Mound and some drunks at the Tron on Hogmanay.

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Instead it has to be repurposed to reflect what is best for the city. There are endless examples of festivals and celebrations across Scotland that are sustainable and successful but not drowning in tat and cheap booze sponsorship. The alternative is it just keeps on growing until Edinburgh is simply one giant theme park, switching from one event to another as the calendar unfolds and the sponsors dictate.

Facing the return to work and credit card bills, you might not think any of this matters. In that case take a walk down to Princes Street Gardens and look at the visible damage done. That is the price our city pays unless we do something to stop it.