City leaders condemned for failure to sever Edinburgh winter festivals deal over 'adverse publicity'

Council chiefs have been criticised for failing to trigger an “adverse publicity” clause over the running of Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay festivals – despite a string of damaging controversies.

Edinburgh's Christmas festival has been running for more than 20 years. Picture: Tim Edgeler
Edinburgh's Christmas festival has been running for more than 20 years. Picture: Tim Edgeler

The local authority is under fire for failing to explain why it did not terminate an £800,000 contract with events firm Underbelly despite a condition that the events should not damage the reputation of the local authority.

City leaders ruled out bringing in new organisers to take over the winter festivals despite a failure to secure planning permission for an expanded Christmas market last winter and damage to Princes Street Gardens which left part of out of bounds until July.

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There were also rows over the removal of the city’s traditional Norwegian Christmas tree and a nativity scene from The Mound to make way for a giant screen at Hogmanay and the introduction of a new wristband system for businesses and residents to give them access during the street party.

More than 2.6 million people flocked to Edinburgh's Christmas market in and around East Princes Street Gardens last winter. Picture: Lloyd Smith
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There was also controversy after Underbelly was handed a two-year extension to its contract without the involvement of elected councillors.

The contracts agreed between the council and Underbelly include a clause that it could be terminated if “any act or omission causes, or in the council’s reasonable opinion, is likely to cause adverse publicity or damage to the reputation of the council.”

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Underbelly’s own review of the two events admits that the company was “not deaf” to some of the concerns that were raised last year. It stated that the Christmas and Hogmanay events generated 443 and 1887 online articles respectively, although it did not provide a breakdown on whether coverage was positive or negative.

A shake-up has been ordered into how the council handles major events in the wake of last year’s controversies, including more oversight from elected members.

Councillors asked officials to investigate whether there had been any breach of the condition on bringing the council into “substantial public disrepute.”

However a new report on the events states: “While the issues highlighted in the previous reports have caused adverse publicity to the council, they are not considered to be a material breach nor grounds for termination.”

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Officials asked for a fuller explanation during a meeting this week insisted they would to seek legal advice before providing any more information.

Conservative councillor Iain Whyte said: “Something very murky is going on when council officers can’t explain why an adverse publicity cancellation clause in a contract isn’t valid over the Christmas market.

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“On the face of things, Underbelly are to blame for the lack of planning permission and the adverse publicity it brought. But you can’t blame Underbelly if someone in the council knew all along and gave a nod and wink that it would all be alright on the night.

"Rather than an oversight by a contractor it suggests a cavalier attitude to the rules by council officers and a complete failure of scrutiny and oversight by the council administration."

Terry Levinthal, director of the heritage watchdog the Cockburn Association, said: “The onus was clearly on Underbelly, like any responsible developer, to obtain planning permission before undertaking building work.

"The questions that remain are who within the council decided that for two years in succession this obligation could be set on one side, and why they had the power to turn a blind eye?”

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A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “We cannot secure planning permission for any Christmas market without an agreed layout. The council is the landlord at Princes Street Gardens.

"Permission for the intended layout for the market was requested in April 2019 but not given until October 2019. It was only after that point that a planning application could begin.”

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