They have been a fixture of Edinburgh’s landscape since their creation in the middle of the 18th century. Princes Street Gardens are still the centrepiece of the Capital and play host to many of the city’s signature events and festivals.
But the gardens have also become a modern-day battleground, taking centre stage in debates raging online over the future direction of the city. Their use for events and festivals appears to have large sections of the Edinburgh populace up in arms. The last two summers have seen event organisers and the city council face barrages of criticism over the staging of pop and rock concerts, despite the fact they have been home to live music events since 1877.
More people packed into Princes Street Gardens for summer concerts than I can recall in more than 25 years of living and working in the city. But the all-ticket shows, featuring Lewis Capaldi, Chvrches, Primal Scream and Madness, were accompanied by a soundtrack of anguish over the impact on access to the gardens, the noise generated across the city and the loss of pavement space on Princes Street when the city was at its peak-festival busiest.
Summer debate about winter
Somewhat bizarrely, this summer also saw debate raging about the impact of the two winter festivals, largely focused on the two gardens on either side of The Mound, with news emerging of the ousting of the ice rink from St Andrew Square, the ordering of a review into the future of the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals and, this week, warnings from their organisers that their future is at risk if there is a clampdown on commercial activities.
Underbelly, the company which secured an £800,000 contract to produce the events in 2017, has gone on the front foot in response to surprise moves to rethink the winter festivals over the next two years, prompted in part by the launch of a new grassroots campaign to “defend the city against unwelcome development, privatisation and over-tourism”.
Underbelly, which has become one of the key players in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe over the last 20 years, presides over two winter events which attracted 1.1 million attendees, sold more than 850,000 tickets and generated more than £150 million for the economy last time. But the firm insists that the financial model put in place when the new contract was put out to tender means the events have to be run on a commercial basis and rely on income generated from the use of East Princes Street Gardens for market stalls, bars and fairground rides. It is also adamant that the three-day Hogmanay festival is a loss-maker, due to the current £4 million cost of staging the event.
Underbelly has taken a calculated gamble to declare that the city could lose both its Christmas and Hogmanay festivals if Princes Street Gardens is regarded as sacrosanct. Such a prospect will horrify many in the tourism, business and hospitality sectors.
But the council would not have instigated a review if it was not acutely aware of concerns about the use of public space in the city and commercial activity in the gardens. There is next to no chance in the current financial climate of either the council or the Scottish Government stepping in to restore public funding of either event to levels they have enjoyed in the past, which would certainly reduce the reliance on “commercialism”. With the clock ticking down towards some crunch decision-making by the council on the direction of these events by the end of 2021, could its proposed tourist tax offer a resolution to a challenging conundrum?