Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens are more than an event space to raise cash for Edinburgh City Council, writes Stephen Jardine.
When I present the political discussion show Debate Night on BBC Scotland, I’m always looking for the sweet spot. It’s that moment when you know a subject is exhausted and it is time to move on. The best indication is the studio audience. If they no longer look engaged, the same can probably be said for viewers at home.
That said, it can take some persistence for the truth to come out. Which brings us back to Edinburgh’s Christmas Market for the second week running. It is due to open to the public for the festive season next weekend with up to 100,000 a day expected at peak times. That is a population the size of Darlington but, despite that, it still doesn’t have planning permission.
That fact was only uncovered following dogged enquiries by heritage organisation the Cockburn Association. Attempts to dismiss it as some bureaucratic bungle hide the real cause for concern. Pictures on social media showed the giant Christmas Market scaffolding superstructure precariously balanced on a steep slope in Princes Street Gardens. Some feared it’s an accident waiting to happen.
We established last week that this isn’t the responsibility of event organisers Underbelly. They are a commercial organisation and as such their motivation is profit. Instead blame for the fiasco lies with the council as the regulatory authority.
The problems started earlier this year when officials used delegated authority to address issues involving the project that would normally be decided in council committees. Instead decisions were taken away from the usual scrutiny. The council insists the project is safe and will only open when all checks have been made. But this week one councillor told me he felt “angry, frustrated and let down” about having to deal with public complaints without being given full access to the process. Next week that anger will boil over when some councillors table an emergency motion to force the Christmas Market to be moved to a different site. With just days until the opening, that is unlikely to happen but lessons must be learned.
This isn’t about being a Grinch or a Scrooge. It’s not about spoiling Christmas. Quite the opposite, it’s about following the proceedures that are in place to keep the citizens of Edinburgh safe. Take a walk down the Royal Mile and you will see the security gates that were installed with planning permission to improve public safety. But just down the hill in Princes Street Gardens anything seems to go in pursuit of keeping Underbelly happy and attracting more and more people to the tinsel tat monster that is Edinburgh’s Christmas Market. The juggernaut can’t be stopped this year but in January, as the gardens lie bruised and blighted yet again for all of us to see, we need to have a proper public debate about what we want from our city centre.
At this time of increased environmental awareness, is it a green lung for us all to enjoy or a space simply to be flogged off to the highest bidder, regardless of the consequences? The clue is in the name. It is public realm so that decision is one for all of us, not Edinburgh City Council.