Edinburgh's Christmas Market: Why time is already running out to make big decisions – Cliff Hague

Will Edinburgh Council continue to play Russian roulette with the health of Princes Street Gardens despite the damage caused by the last Christmas market, asks Professor Cliff Hague.
Damage to the grass in Princes Street Gardens seen in January after the Christmas markets (Picture: SWNS)Damage to the grass in Princes Street Gardens seen in January after the Christmas markets (Picture: SWNS)
Damage to the grass in Princes Street Gardens seen in January after the Christmas markets (Picture: SWNS)

Christmas is coming. The Cockburn Association had been led to understand that Edinburgh Council’s policy and sustainability committee would today receive a report on possible arrangements for this year’s Christmas Market. Surprisingly, there is no such paper in the documents posted online for the committee meeting. This matters because time is now short if the market is again to be held in East Princes Street Gardens, and be properly scrutinised for compliance with the Council’s planning policies.

Happily, East Princes Street Gardens have recently been reopened to the general public, following lengthy remediation work to recover from the 2019 Christmas Market, construction of which had begun in mid-October of last year. Something on the scale of last year’s market would count as a major planning application, and so probably take three months to process, since consultations with a range of bodies would be required. Count back from mid-October to see why time is now short. In 2018 and 2019, construction of the market took place without planning permission.

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Hopefully, the long summer days have not erased the controversies of last autumn, winter and spring from the memories of our elected representatives and salaried officials. Just in case, here is a basic recap. A large development was allowed to go ahead in the heart of the World Heritage Site without seeking planning permission. A deck was built over the grass so as to enable a mock German Market to be constructed, where drinks and takeaway food figured prominently, alongside funfair attractions.

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Edinburgh Christmas market bosses were not halted despite no planning permission...

Memorial benches in the gardens were ditched and burned. The grass was killed off and the ground compressed. To everyone’s surprise, there was rain in January and February, leaving much of the gardens not just bare but also waterlogged.

Public anger was manifested when 850 people turned up on a cold January night to an open public summit organised by the Cockburn Association on the theme “City for Sale?”

All this happened before Covid-19 arrived, bringing warnings about large gatherings and the need for social distancing. So one obvious question is whether a repeat of what happened in 2019-20 is really a good idea?

Of course, we all want to enjoy the Christmas season, and the Christmas Market helps draw tourists into Edinburgh, so will be seen by some as a quick fix way towards economic recovery.

Organisers and council officials will put a ticket on it, saying how much footfall it creates, and how much income it generates, though in the past they have been more reticent about where the money goes to.

But, as the New York City parks commissioner Mitchell Silver said in a recent Cockburn conversation the true value of our parks is as parks, public health-giving assets that are open to all.

It is time to say “Keep Off The Grass” to commercial organisations eyeing the business opportunities of our public parks. In the first half of this year, we could all see what soil scientists, horticulturalists, ecologists and landscape architects know as experts.

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Grass needs sunlight and oxygen. Placing boards on top is bad for grass. Compacting soil squeezes out air and water that are essential for roots to thrive, and for healthy tree development. The more often you do it, the worse things get, and the sooner waterlogging kicks in.

Regular Christmas markets or similar events on grassed surfaces represent a game of Russian roulette with the health of our parks. Put them on hard standing. There will be no big wheel in the gardens this summer to protect the grass; will there be one in mid-winter?

Edinburgh aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. How does a 2019-style Christmas Market, with its generators and trinkets from afar, contribute to this endeavour? That question was not asked last year. It should be on the agenda for 2020.

For a longer version of this article, visit www.cockburnassociation.org.uk.

Professor Cliff Hague is chair of the Cockburn Association

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