The recent furore over the use of East Princes Street Gardens for Edinburgh’s Christmas has highlighted yet again the pressing need for a coherent strategy for the use of public space in Edinburgh to support our world- renowned and hugely successful annual festivals.
These are major drivers of the city’s economy, and we need urgently to look at how we ensure we maintain and support events that are the envy of cities around the world.
The highly publicised comments of recent weeks have again seen heritage and other resident interest groups in the city raise concerns over what they perceive as the over-commercialisation of our public space. There is no doubt whatsoever that some issues of process should have been handled better and I am sure that there will be reviews of how the situation escalated to the point it has.
However, let’s be in no doubt. The interest groups, community councils and some councillors have all jumped on the bandwagon to support their own agendas about how we use our public spaces. They speak very well and articulately for their own constituent groups and members, but they do not speak collectively for the whole resident and business population of our city.
Without any doubt, Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations play a huge role in driving our city centre economy at a fundamentally crucial time in the retail and leisure calendar. Last year’s figures released by Underbelly were testament to this. Over 900.000 visits to the city centre, over 770,000 tickets sold and just under 200,000 of these sold to EH postcodes. The vast majority of these people, irrespective of whether they are visitors or residents, also go on to shop, eat, drink or stay overnight, as well as visiting specific attractions. Satisfaction rates amongst the residents who attended the event were very high.
This helps sustain full time employment as well as a number of seasonal and part time jobs over the festive period. These are tangible and real benefits to the citizens of the whole of Edinburgh and help support our wider community.
The citizens that work in retail and leisure roles may have concerns linked to the use of public space, but they are far more concerned about their jobs and income. The retail and leisure businesses in the city centre (that pay the highest business rates in the country) see this period as vital in their trading year. Heritage and community groups need to embrace this, accept there are wider concerns and that tourism and events support groups and citizens that sit squarely out with their core membership. Tourism and events are not things the city needs to fight against, they are things we need to embrace and support.
Through our own management of the privately-owned St Andrew Square Garden we are acutely aware of the debate over the use of green space in the city. However, we do need to come together to look at what appropriate public space is available, what space is best suited to host major events, and what more we can do to ensure our public space is put to good use to promote and protect the quality of life of our city and the very livelihood of many of our citizens.
Edinburgh city centre is performing very well against many key measures and has received some significant new investment in recent years, most notably with Edinburgh St James, Diageo, Gleneagles, Virgin Hotels, Malmaison, Edinburgh Grand and others making major long-term commitments to our city. The retail sector is undergoing change as it is all over the world and we cannot escape this, especially with the anticipated changes to Princes Street occupiers in the next couple of years. Where we are strong is our tourist and visitor numbers, which support our resident population, making Edinburgh such an attractive investment opportunity.
There is also a strong relationship between this investment and the restoration of important heritage buildings in the city, a number of which would be lying empty if not for high quality interventions by some of the companies already mentioned. The city needs to stop arguing and squabbling over issues such as over tourism and the use of our public space and work together to find workable solutions for the long term. ETAG’s 2030 Tourism strategy is a start on this process.
There may well be potential alternative locations to site some of Edinburgh’s Christmas activities and yes we do need a more coherent strategy for the use of public space all over Edinburgh, but what we cannot afford to do is dilute one of the city’s largest and most successful events, not to mention the additional impact of Hogmanay.
Heritage and community groups have raised genuine and very relevant concerns about East Princes Street Gardens that must be addressed, but equally the city’s retail and leisure community voice deserves to be heard – the city needs to work together on these issues and understand they are not in isolation.
Roddy Smith, chief executive, Essential Edinburgh