Edinburgh Fringe can grown when city expands – John McLellan

Fringe audiences have grown by 1.25 million to just over three million in ten years. Picture: Jon Savage
Fringe audiences have grown by 1.25 million to just over three million in ten years. Picture: Jon Savage
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Steel barriers across historic setts, red and yellow plastic barriers blocking pavements, tatty yellow webbing shutting off streets, aluminium fencing squeezing pedestrians through congested corners while queuing buses, coaches and sightseeing tours belch fumes into their faces – welcome to Edinburgh’s Unesco World Heritage site in August.

By any stretch of the imagination the changes to the city centre’s streets this August have been, as transport convener Lesley Macinnes might put it, a dog’s breakfast. In fact, the hasty arrangements for Edinburgh’s Summertime Streets initiative make a morning canine snack look like something lovingly prepared by Tom Kitchin.

Who can blame Lothian Buses’ commercial director Nigel Serafini for citing a combination of roadworks, street blockages and soaring passenger demand for effectively ripping up the company’s timetables for the past month as it struggles to cope.

As for active travel, I seriously wonder if anyone responsible for this year’s chaos has tried to cycle along Princes Street. With nose-to-tail buses swerving across the carriageway from stances to get in the right lane, surviving the ride might make you feel alive, but cycling in a World Heritage site isn’t supposed to be a duel with death. As for taking a bike anywhere near the Summertime Streets, forget it.

Throw in a sellout crowd at ­Murrayfield for a rugby international on the last weekend of the Festival, with scenes at Waverley like the Tokyo rush-hour, and it’s hard to deny that Edinburgh can’t cope with what it has created. Standing room only is a ­common occurrence on main train services to Edinburgh from England.

The city is a victim of its own success and four million ticket sales during August, three-quarters of them to the Fringe, speaks of a group of events which continue to go from strength to strength – and with 855,000 Fringe tickets bought by Edinburgh ­people it’s one of which locals take full advantage. The statistics prove that responsibility for audience saturation lies squarely with the Fringe, and with the International Festival director Fergus Linehan honest enough to admit his event is about the right size – a comparatively modest 420,000 tickets – the time has surely come for the Fringe Society to ask itself if the founding anarchic principles which have served it so well are no longer appropriate.

This debate has raged for decades, but who, ten years ago, would have predicted Fringe audiences would have grown by 1.25 million to just over three million? Unless ­something major changes, the ‘no vacancies’ signs surely need to go up. But the bedlam has its value, because, although the Fringe has reached capacity, the city’s population has a long way to go and to remain competitive Edinburgh has to grow in ways which do not just keep ­funnelling ­people into the city centre as the 3-4,000 homes likely to go up in ­Granton could easily do.

This month shows what happens when the city centre public transport grid is disrupted without much of an alternative and the answers lie in as radical an approach as was taken in the 18th century, when it was finally accepted that the old city was too small. It’s not good enough to string yellow webbing across the road and call it an active travel strategy, and in fairness to senior officials that’s a conclusion they have come to as well.

Within the last month, a £100,000 project has been established through the city council to produce a plan for the whole of West Edinburgh taking in Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh Park and the airport, potentially creating an entirely new place to live, work and play which stretches from Currie to Cammo and Kirkliston.

Alarm bells will sound and ensuring expansion is managed to minimise the impact on existing residents is essential, but unless the ‘full’ signs go up across the whole city all year round, managed expansion is inevitable. And when Edinburgh grows, the Fringe can grow with it.