Brian Ferguson: Hogmanay switch no surprise given funding squeeze

Hogmanay switch probably inevitable given funding cuts, writes Brian Ferguson
Hogmanay switch is probably inevitable given funding cuts. Picture: PAHogmanay switch is probably inevitable given funding cuts. Picture: PA
Hogmanay switch is probably inevitable given funding cuts. Picture: PA

In the end, there was something sadly inevitable about the bitter spat over Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. News that Unique Events had been dropped as organisers of the event after 24 years at the helm may have sent shock waves through the city’s festivals and events scenes.

But, to me, it was no great surprise the Edinburgh-based company lost out to its London rival, Underbelly, over the event it pretty much built from scratch. The writing was on the wall when Unique lost a long-running battle to protect the funding for the Hogmanay festivities.

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Its pleas fwor the event, worth more than £40 million for the city, to be treated the same as its other major festivals fell on deaf ears as £500,000 was cut from the previous £1.3 million annual budget, despite years of soaring costs and a new demand to pay for police cover.

The council felt the main elements of Hogmanay could be delivered on a much lower subsidy. Unique was adamant that was impossible without compromising on either programme quality or public safety. The stand-off provided the tense backdrop for another firm to step in.

Five years ago, a clear contender would have been DF Concerts, organisers of T in the Park. But that was before DF ran into serious problems with the forced relocation from Balado to Strathallan, the political quagmire of receiving state aid from the Scottish Government and the reluctant shelving of the event to regroup.

There is undoubted irony in the “Hogmanay coup,” as it was described in one headline last week, given Unique had joined forces with Underbelly to secure the previous winter festivals contract. But the alliance allowed Underbelly to observe the running of Hogmanay event at close quarters – as well as take control of the lucrative and much-expanded network of pop-up bars in the city centre. Underbelly has clearly presented the council with a far more financially appealing bid, one I suspect they knew would be irresistible to a council increasingly keen to reduce investment in events it sees little or no return from.

Judging by the lengthy and outspoken statement issued by Unique a few minutes after the council announcement, it had long feared the worst, despite their festival being crowned Scotland’s best event a few days earlier – a bittersweet triumph if ever there was one.

That cut in it council subsidy was certainly on the cards just over a year ago when Pete Irvine, long-time figurehead of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, announced he was stepping down. He was far more measured and dignified in his reaction to last week’s news when we spoke, but no less disappointed at what has become of his legacy.

There is little question Unique wanted to keep hold of the event with which the company, and some of its staff, have been inextricably linked since the beginning. But I cannot help but wonder if the loss of the contract may just prove to be a blessing in disguise for the company. There will be understandable concerns about the short-term impact of the city council’s decision, especially so soon after Unique lost a lucrative contract to stage the annual sound and light event with the Royal Botanic Garden.

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With the Hogmanay monkey, and all the uncertainties of that funding squeeze, off its back Unique will be able to fully focus on other events and fresh challenges. The Botanic Lights event certainly worked wonders in filling one of the many gaps in Edinburgh’s events calendar. But its ambitions have never been restricted to the city and it may find a new lease of life by spreading its wings much further afield.

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