Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and Christmas facing big questions – John McLellan

A planning hearing on Edinburgh’s controversial Christmas market scaffolding will be held after its over, while the city’s Hogmanay celebrations aren’t confirmed to appear on BBC, writes John McLellan

The Christmas market being built in Princes Street Gardens
The Christmas market being built in Princes Street Gardens

As the row rumbles on over Edinburgh’s Christmas promoter Underbelly and its scaffolding plaza now smothering Princes Street Gardens, the mystery about how construction could proceed without planning permission may yet take another twist. The entire extravaganza grew from the acceptance that Edinburgh at Christmas was a pretty miserable affair, with Princes Street decorated by little more than sad little lights on ugly concrete-based stanchions, but also the potential to grow the visitor economy by putting Edinburgh’s Hogmanay on the global tourism map.

Key to selling the whole thing was beaming out spectacular TV pictures of everyone having a smashing time as the fireworks lit up the Castle and top-quality entertainment in the gardens. This year DJ Mark Ronson will be blasting out his hits from the Ross Bandstand.

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However, sources suggest that talks between Underbelly and the BBC have been, shall we say, more complex than usual and as a result the Beeb is now considering heading up the M9 to broadcast from Stirling Castle instead. A BBC spokesman confirmed they were still looking at locations, but no firm decisions had been made – quite an admission if they can’t confirm their main show will be anchored in Edinburgh with weeks to go.

Loss of TV coverage would be a serious blow and hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does turn out to be minimal and Stirling Castle becomes the focus, the effect on the future business case for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and the calculations of economic benefit could be considerable.

The whole debacle will be debated at the next full council meeting and there is a suggestion that the whole thing could be moved to Castle Terrace, although at this late stage it seems unlikely.

What remains unanswered is whether Underbelly, and those inside the council who advised them, knew that by the time a planning application had been processed the event would be over. The market ends on January 4 and a decision is expected three weeks later. There is bound to be a reasonable explanation and we all look forward to hearing it.

Politicos shun ‘Scooby Doo-villains’

As Christmas approaches, the black-tie dinner season is upon us and, with strictly no electioneering, ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls was in ebullient form at the Scottish Property Federation dinner on Thursday, now he is unencumbered by the responsibility of campaigning for a party with which he has little left in common, with one exception.

On a day when ex-Labour MPs Ian Austin and John Woodcock both endorsed the Conservatives, in the Q&A after his talk it was inevitable Balls would be asked which party he now backed, but he is in the happy position of his local Labour candidate also being his wife, Yvette Cooper, so he was able to dodge the question by pointing out that voting for someone else would have domestic repercussions. His stint on Strictly Come Dancing has vastly broadened his appeal from his reputation as Gordon Brown’s knee-capper-in-chief during the last Labour government and his boss’s wrestle for the top job with Tony Blair. And his relaxing routine – without notes – mixes yarns from his 15 minutes of showbiz fame as a passable hoofer with his political anecdotes and observations.

Balls was one of a few ex-politicians among the 500-or-so guests at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre; former Lothian Conservative MSP Gavin Brown was Emcee, ex-Edinburgh Council leader Donald Anderson’s property consultancy Playfair Scotland had a table, but from what I could see there were only two currently elected members in attendance, East Lothian SNP councillor Paul McLennan, who is also associate director of Playfair, and I. So the point made by incoming chair Robin Blacklock in his address that property developers were usually characterised as Scooby-Doo villains and needed to do a lot more to persuade politicians of the industry’s positive role was well made.

Even frm animals are treated better

As politicians up and down the country grab the nearest available toddler or cutest pet, Edinburgh council has swung into full crisis mode over the demise of the beloved Gorgie City Farm.

The farm charity rents the land from the council which also pays it an annual grant of £100k. Two briefings have been sent to councillors this week, the second about how council leader Adam McVey had convened a meeting with staff, community representatives and politicians. Another briefing is promised soon. All very laudable, but it contrasts with how the council has handled the death of another organisation for which it is directly responsible.

Last week the council pulled the plug on its arms-length company Marketing Edinburgh and put about 20 people at risk of redundancy, but there were no expressions of anguished concern about their future from the leader, no emergency meetings and no all-councillor briefings. Marketing Edinburgh staff can now claim the council treats farm animals better.

Rosette etiquette

On Wednesday I was involved in an unusual application for a business park in Gilmerton, unusual in that there were hundreds of letters of support from the local community but not a single objection apart from planning officers who advised refusal.

When councillors vote on planning applications it is not done on a political basis – that would be illegal – so we don’t sit in groups and differences of opinion between colleagues are commonplace. On this application, councillors voted 8-3 to grant permission; the two Labour members were split as were the two Greens, and the third vote to refuse was from the SNP convener while his two colleagues voted to approve. So what a pity the SNP’s Edinburgh South candidate attempted to turn the hearing into an election opportunity by sporting a party rosette. Still, that was four hours she wasn’t out canvassing.

Cheryl Cole gets late World Cup call-up

Finally, on the subject of cancelled celebrations, recycling centres will be gearing up to receive palettes of unsold copies of Eddie Jones’ autobiography My Life and Rugby, released this week. I will leave the last word on England’s Rugby World Cup final disappointment to my old team-mate Steve Trainer from Furness RUFC who mournfully texted at half time, “Cheryl Cole would be better than Dan...”

Ex-Scotsman editor John McLellan is a City of Edinburgh Conservative councillor