19th century law cited in campaign to block return of Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue

Heritage campaigners are trying to use a law dating back nearly 200 years to block the return of a "big top" circus tent during the planned comeback of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this summer.

The Cockburn Association is hoping an 1827 order put in place to protect the Meadows will thwart plans to revive the staging of shows on the public park.

It has told the city council that the return of the Circus Hub venue – which it describes as an "enclosed, exclusive" event space – would fall foul of the aims of the Edinburgh Improvement Act, which prevents the erection of any new buildings on the Meadows or neighbouring Bruntsfield Links.

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The heritage body, formed in 1875, claims that the return of the Fringe venue, which has been a fixture at the Fringe since 2015, will “partly privatise” the publicly-owned park.

More than 300 objections have been lodged over the proposed return of the Fringe venue since the Cockburn launched a social media campaign against using the Meadows this summer for what it describes as “private ticketed events and hospitality”?

It also claims the venue, which will have a dedicated eating and drinking space, will have a "significant impact" on the Meadows, which has played host to Fringe shows for more than 20 years, by reducing the amount of space available for recreational use, and insists “soft landscaped areas” in the city should not be used for any events requiring heavy infrastructure.

The Cockburn has suggested Conference Square, in the city's financial district, or the Meadowbank Retail Park as possible alternative locations.

Its objection to the proposals describes Underbelly’s plans as a “new application for development” for the site next to Middle Meadow Walk, which was previously used by the Lady Boys of Bangkok for 17 years before the use of the park was put out to tender by the city council.

The Circus Hub was first brought to the Meadows by Underbelly in 2015. Picture: Scott Louden
The Circus Hub was first brought to the Meadows by Underbelly in 2015. Picture: Scott Louden

The Meadows has a long history of hosting events dates back to the International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art in 1886, which attracted more than 2.7 million visitors over nearly six months.

Underbelly’s plans would see four shows for up to 568 festivalgoers staged daily between 12 noon and 11pm over the three weeks of the festival.

It says the footprint of the site will be the same as previous years, with a capacity of 1024, but will only go ahead if the current 2m distancing restriction on events in Scotland is relaxed.

However the Cockburn’s objection states: “The past history of occupation should not be taken as a material consideration in this application or should be given minimal weight. In effect, from a planning perspective, a this is a new application for a development in a public park.

Circus Hub performers with Underbelly founders Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood. Picture: Scott Louden

"Covid has also demonstrated the critical need to preserve open spaces for well-being, both physical and mental. The enclosure of a sizable part of the Meadows will have a material impact on space available for informal recreation and enjoyment, and should be resisted.

"The Edinburgh Improvement Act of 1827 expressly stipulates that no buildings may be erected in the Meadows or Bruntsfield Links.

"We believe that this development is contrary to the spirit, if not fact, of the 1827 Act and the use as a enclosed, exclusive event space is not consistent with Common Good land.”

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