Why Underbelly isn’t to blame for Edinburgh’s Christmas market fiasco – Stephen Jardine

Edinburgh City Council’s actions over the enormous scaffolding structure for the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens show why Scotland’s capital needs a directly elected Provost, writes Stephen Jardine.
Scaffolding is erected in Princes Street Gardens East in preparation for the Christmas market. Picture: Ian GeorgesonScaffolding is erected in Princes Street Gardens East in preparation for the Christmas market. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Scaffolding is erected in Princes Street Gardens East in preparation for the Christmas market. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Next weekend brings a solemn moment in the life of our nation. On Remembrance Sunday, people will gather in the garden on Princes Street to commemorate those who gave their lives for our country.

From the poppies to the little wooden crosses, it is a ceremony that never changes. The certainty of it helps remembrance last down the generations. But this year something will be different.

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November 11 used to mark a change of mood. After that, the poppies were removed and Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations could begin to take shape. However this year that started long, long ago. Princes Street Gardens are already the location for an enormous scaffolding structure that will be the base for this year’s Christmas Market. The tiny Garden of Remembrance is the only area not swamped by this giant behemoth.

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Despite concerns last year about layout and overcrowding, the event this year will be even bigger with 160 stalls crammed into the site. That’s more than four times bigger than it was just a few years ago.

The original was fine so who agreed it needs to be this big? So much for all the care, time and money spent on the landscaping around the redeveloped National Galleries of Scotland. While they conveniently look the other way, the new space outside has been subsumed by the scale of the Christmas infrastructure.

Perfect pantomime villains

It is easy to blame Underbelly, which has the contract to organise Edinburgh’s Christmas. Fresh from threatening that the Hogmanay street party may be unsustainable if they don’t get carte blanche at Christmas, they are perfect pantomime villains.

Actually, I don’t blame them. Not even for not bothering to get planning permission for the market. The bottom line is that Underbelly is a commercial organisation which exists to make money. And when it comes to flogging festive tat, greasy hot dogs and hot, rank red wine they do that very well, so good luck to them.

Instead the blame for the over-exploitation and commercialisation of public spaces in Edinburgh lies fairly and squarely with Edinburgh City Council. Where mere mortals have to jump through planning hoops to renovate a toilet in their own home, Underbelly seems to decide what they want to do and then the council rolls over.

The people who built it aren’t bothered. Underbelly is the Millwall of events organisation, accepting no one likes them but they really don’t care. The council should be better than that. Their job is to look after the best interests of the city. In their inept handling of Edinburgh’s Christmas, they have totally failed to that.

The solution for Scotland’s capital city needs to be an elected Provost. Look at the difference it has made in London. Regardless of the politics, that city has benefitted from having one individual who isn’t afraid to take action or responsibility.

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In Edinburgh that person might actually have spotted a city centre structure the size of a football pitch taking shape without planning permission and done something about it. They might even have the ability to stand up to big business and fight for what is best for the city and the people who live here. Just imagine that?