Is it time for Edinburgh to take a Glastonbury-style break from the festival? – Stephen Jardine

For three weeks in August the population of Edinburgh doubles. Picture: Jon Savage
For three weeks in August the population of Edinburgh doubles. Picture: Jon Savage
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The capital is cross as the Fringe gets bigger and more commercialised. It is time for a serious public debate, writes Stephen Jardine

We’ve almost made it. Edinburgh has just about survived another Festival and Fringe. In just a couple of days the chaotic circus leaves town and Scotland’s capital gets back to being a living, working city for another 11 months.

But for the month of August it is something else.

For three weeks the population doubles and even the simplest task becomes an obstacle course involving crowds of bemused visitors, political jugglers and the pan pipe players from the Andes.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is our pride and joy. Boosting the local economy to the tune of £200 million every year, it is the gift that keeps on giving. With uncertain times ahead economically, the Fringe is our golden goose.

However money isn’t everything. Just as we are all personally striving for a better work/life balance, Edinburgh needs to decide how the economic prosperity that comes in August sits with a resident population that just want to get on with their lives.

We are told the Fringe generates thousands of jobs but the vast majority of them are transient. Every drama student in the UK is here in Edinburgh wearing a lanyard and organising the queues but they are doing it for minimum wage and by next week they will be gone. Hotels, bars and restaurants are overflowing but then they are also packed in June and July.

Every Fringe performer I’ve spoken to this year told me they expect to lose money following their time here. So just who is making all the money?

The answer is the big promoters who take over swathes of the city centre in August. The days of amateur productions in church halls are largely gone, with super venues filled with stand-up comedy performers now dominating the Fringe.

With serious amounts of alcohol sponsorship, they make the money and call the shots. That was just about OK while visitors and residents could coexist in Edinburgh but there are increasing indications that patience is wearing thin. The commercialisation of every space in the August and the strain placed on transport, litter collection and the public realm has led to more grumbles from locals than ever before. This city is cross.

The way to solve that is not for the Fringe to grow and grow, as it always has done. Instead the city council needs to organise a proper public consultation and summit to decide where we go from here. Perhaps the big super venues should pay a public benefit charge based on profits to help support local infrastructure in August? That could pay for an army of street cleaners or even free bus travel for locals for the month.

Or maybe the Fringe needs to shrink to just a fortnight to allow the city more time to catch it’s breath while still enjoying the benefits.

Or how about a fallow year when Edinburgh can take stock in August and really appreciate what the Fringe brings. It works for Glastonbury so why not here ?

Whatever the outcome, we need to have a serious conversation about August in Edinburgh because more and more people every year simply isn’t a sustainable option.