Edinburgh Book Festival director wants whole of George Street

The director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival has called for the whole of George Street to be handed over for events each August.

Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the extended site for the Book Festival at the west end of George Street. Scott Louden
Nick Barley, Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival at the extended site for the Book Festival at the west end of George Street. Scott Louden

Nick Barley has called for the city centre shake-up ahead of his event spilling out of Charlotte Square for the first time.

He hopes his new garden-themed arena of George Street will pave the way for festival arenas to be staged along the entire length of the thoroughfare.

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The book festival will be running two new venues – the Bosco Theatre and the Greenhouse – at the west end of George Street, along with a new outdoor cafe.

It has joined forces with the operators of The Stand comedy club to run the new arena, with the backing of business group Essential Edinburgh and local bars and restaurants who will be running their own pavement cafes.

However, the section between Charlotte Square and Frederick Street is the only part of George Street which will be completely closed to traffic for the entire festival period. A lane of traffic has been kept in place outside the Assembly Rooms, where another outdoor arena has been created outside the popular Fringe venue.

The expansion of the book festival has coincided with the 70th birthday of the Fringe and the Edinburgh International Festival, as well as the 250th anniversary of the New Town.

The book festival, which was held for the first time and has been an annual event since 1997, has always been held entirely in Charlotte Square Gardens until now.

Mr Barley said: “I’m really happy with what we’ve got here in George Street this year.

“I’m delighted that we have got a chance to work with a Fringe company as well as put on book festival activities in George Street.

“It seems to me to be a really important step forward and it could lead to a lot more happening in future.

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“I’d like to see George Street become one of the buzzing hearts of the ‘festival city,’ as Charlotte Square has been for many years. This is a first step in the direction of that.

“I would be delighted if the whole of George Street was closed in the future and if this whole area became a buzzing festival zone. I think it’s possible.”

The city council has given the go-ahead for the west end of George Street despite the impact of building work on the St James development in the east end of the city centre and a clampdown on the staging of Fringe shows in St Andrew Square Garden, which the local authority leases from various property owners.

Mr Barley added: “To make things happen in this city takes a lot of things to come together and a lot of people to work in collaboration. That can have complications and frustrations. We’ve seen some hiccups over the last few months.

I think it can serve as a really great model for how George Street can operate in a way which is satisfying to punters, performers and the people who have to run bars, restaurants and shops around us.

“George Street is a really important place for the city as a kind of balance to the Royal Mile. This can also be a model for future growth of the festivals.

“We have to try to find a way that works for everybody. If we don’t find that balance, there will never be a long-term solution. This is our attempt to find that solution and I’m pretty sure it is going to be a success.

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“I’m really proud about the attention to detail and the quality of what has been built. People will really see that when it is fully up and running.

“It will also really open up the book festival to new audiences. People have maybe walked down George Street without going into the book festival. It’s right there in front of them now instead of behind a gate. This is us reaching out into the city in order to give people the chance to come and try the festival.

We’re creating a space where people can come and sit and relax in between events. It’s an opportunity for the city to come outside and relax. We’ve not simply packed it with theatres.

“This is an experiment and we’re looking forward to seeing what the results are. If it works then we’d like to be here again.”

William Burdett-Coutts, the artistic director of Assembly Theatre, which runs the Assembly Rooms, said: “I’d like to see the New Town become much more lively again during the festivals.

“In my view, the whole of George Street, apart from the crossroads, should be closed to traffic. I’ve been saying it for years.

“All over the world areas are being pedestrianised and everyone wants to see more of an outdoor culture being developed. If you had Charlotte Square and St Andrew Square used for the festivals, as well as George Street closed, it would be really exciting.”

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However Kenny O’Brien, director of The Stand, which is running the New Town Theatre on George Street for the first time this year, urged caution.

He said: “There’s a growing movement towards limiting cars from city centres around the world. I suspect Edinburgh might go down this route, but its a way away yet.

“Festivals all want any available space, but when that disrupts traffic flows the public don’t always love it.

“Ideally, if the traffic was removed permanently from George Street, with good public transport getting all the workers, shoppers and goods moving slickly, I think that would be more acceptable.

“If the council use festivals and events to to test this water it will cause resentment, so might be a busted idea from the off.”