Edinburgh to press ahead with planning for revamped winter festivals

Edinburgh is to press ahead with planning for its world-famous winter festivals – to try to ensure radically different events can go ahead despite the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

City leaders are exploring options to ensure Edinburgh's world-famous Hogmanay celebrations go ahead.
City leaders are exploring options to ensure Edinburgh's world-famous Hogmanay celebrations go ahead.

The Capital is trying to salvage its Christmas and Hogmanay events following crunch talks between city councillors and producers Underbelly, who have an £800,000 contract to run the festivals on behalf of the local authority.

City council leader Adam McVey said any events that were given the green light by the authority would “look very different” from those held in previous years and would need to provide “a truly Edinburgh experience” for the people of the city as well as visitors.

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A major focus of discussions is on how to support local businesses who have been affected by the pandemic and the cancellation of the city’s summer festivals. It is thought events would be staged in more locations across the city to help spread the benefits of the festivals.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival usually gets underway with a torchlight parade down the Royal Mile. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Detailed proposals for events where social distancing can be enforced are expected to be brought forward for official approval by the end of August following “positive” discussions on possible options yesterday.

The shake-up is expected to see the shelving of the 75,000-capacity street party on Hogmanay and the scaling back of a controversial Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens.

It is understood that drones could be deployed to create special effects above the city centre instead of fireworks on Hogmanay, as has happened in Singapore and Shanghai in recent years.

Underbelly directors Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam said: “'We’re working closely and positively with the council and other partners on plans for Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay.

Edinburgh has been staging a Christmas festival for more than 20 years. Picture: Ian Georgeson

“This will be a pivotal moment for the world both to reflect on 2020 and to look to the future, and the safety of Edinburgh’s residents and visitors is critical to how these plans evolve.

"We’re excited by the events being discussed and look forward to sharing the details in the coming weeks.”

Cllr McVey said: “The council is having positive discussions on how Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay could be celebrated this year.

“All involved recognise the uncertainty of the current situation and the significant requirements for anything Edinburgh hosts to meet public health guidance. It’s clear that if our 2020 winter festivals go ahead they will look very different from recent years, using different locations across the city.

"It is also important to think more creatively about how to better support our local businesses who have been impacted by the lockdown.

"Any events will need to give our residents a truly Edinburgh experience that helps discover more of our fantastic businesses that operate all year round. Work is underway with our partners to further investigate the feasibility of these new proposals and councillors will agree the way forward in the coming weeks.”

Depute council leader Cammy Day added: “We’re the proud hosts to what are well established and internationally renowned winter festivals and, in light of the ongoing global pandemic, we’re looking at alternative ways to mark them in a meaningful, workable and safe way. I feel positive that our Edinburgh will be able to celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay this year.”

Although the winter festivals are said to have been worth more than £150m to the city’s economy in recent years, critics say they have led to growing commercialisation of the city centre and are causing long-term damage to Princes Street Gardens.

One council insider said: “Everyone accepts that there is no way that Edinburgh will be able to have a Hogmanay street party as normal.

“But there is a desire within the council to look at what can be done safely to ensure that the city does host significant celebrations.

“Businesses have suffered significant financial losses during the period of lockdown and are expecting trade to be well down on normal levels over the summer with the cancellation of the festivals.”

The three-day Hogmanay event normally attracts around 180,000 people, including visitors from more than 80 countries. More than 2.6 million people visited the city’s Christmas attractions in East Princes Street Gardens last year.

However the festival was dogged by controversy over an expansion of the Christmas market and the impact of new infrastructure installed in the park.

It was blamed for prolonged problems with flooding in the gardens, which only recently fully reopened to the public after £150,000 of reinstatement work was carried out.

Another council source said: “There is a really tricky balance to be struck between trying to protect Edinburgh’s international reputation for hosting winter events, trying to secure some of the benefits they bring to the city and ensuring there are no public health risks.

“Councillors have also been very clear that the Christmas market cannot have the same kind of impact on Princes Street Gardens again. What is being developed would help ensure social distancing but also a greater spread of things around the city, rather than just in the gardens.”

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