Council leaders admit they were kept in the dark over Princes Street Gardens 'debenture scheme'

Council leaders have admitted they were kept in the dark over plans for a controversial ‘debenture scheme’ to help pay for a new-look Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh. C

City council chief Adam McVey and his deputy Cammy Day have revealed they did not sign off a secret fundraising drive for the £25 million Quaich Project, which will see a new amphitheatre for events to replace the existing Ross Bandstand.

It has also emerged that the proposals, which suggest corporate backers will be able to link their brands to everything from new pathways and seating in the gardens to a 5000-capacity, did not go to any council committee or a senior officer.

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Instead, they were handled and agreed internally by the team working on the Quaich Project, “a public-private partnership” created by the city council and the Ross Development Trust, which was set up by the former owner of the Edinburgh Playhouse, Norman Springford, to pursue a redevelopment of the gardens.

Financial backers have been promised invites to VIP performances by high-profile celebrities, tickets for major concerts in the gardens, and exclusive drinks parties and dinners in a converted cottage.

The fundraising plans were kept secret despite growing concern from heritage groups, community organisers and campaigners about growing “commercialisation” of public space in the city. The brochures were only made public after being leaked to this newspaper.

If given the green light by councillors, the project would see a Hobbit House-style replacement for the existing Ross Bandstand, a two-storey visitor centre and hospitality complex overlooking Edinburgh Castle and a permanent cafe near the Ross Fountain.

Senior figures at the trust say the proposed replacement of the “outdated and inflexible” facilities at the existing bandstand, which dates back to 1935, would “open up possibilities” for the expanded use of the park throughout the year.

However less than £6 million has been raised so far for the project, which is believed to include a £5 million pledge from Norman Springford, who persuaded the council to join forces with him to pursue a joint redevelopment more than five years ago. The city council has pledged to contribute up to £5 million if there is a shortfall.

The Ross Development Trust, which Mr Springford set up to run an international design competition for an overhaul of the gardens, created the Quaich Project with the city council last year to raise the funding for the revamp and carry out the work in the gardens.

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Potential backers are being told that for the project to be successful it needs “the active support and financial investment from a wide array of partners: businesses, philanthropists, charitable grant-making bodies and all those with a vested interest in improving this vital green space in the heart of Edinburgh.”

A spokeswoman for the council said: “The model of seeking donations through a fundraising strategy has underpinned the Quaich Project since its inception.

"Sponsorship and donation materials were prepared for, and approved by, the joint project team and were reviewed by key council departments, including procurement, legal, culture and communications before they were published.”

Cllr Mcvey said: “Any proposed sponsorship or large donation would have to come to councillors for approval. Some of the offers in the fundraising brochures are not really relevant to the council as they’re not about the gardens or any other council asset. The project is not in a position to guarantee anything special, unique or private in relation to the gardens.”

Jules Haston, director of development at the Quaich Project, said the marketing materials were “developed in partnership” with the council.

She added: “We’ve always understood that approval of any major sponsorship or other agreements would need approval by councillors.

"The Quaich Project is a longstanding partnership between the Ross Development Trust and the council. We share a joint ambition to enhance one of the most beautiful settings in the world and a successful fundraising campaign is fundamental to the success of the project."

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Amy McNeese-Mechan, vice-convener of the culture committee, said: “The Quaich Project is providing us with an opportunity to invest in and enhance one of the most stunning settings in Scotland.

"We look forward to continuing to support this and the huge benefits it could bring to the people of Edinburgh and beyond.”