Edinburgh's Hogmanay organisers Underbelly get £250,000 Scottish Government lifeline – as firm is also paid for alternative celebrations next month

The organisers of Edinburgh's Christmas and Hogmanay festivals have secured a £250,000 “lifeline" from the Scottish Government to help them cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their business.

Images from Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations are beamed around the world. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Underbelly, which is also one of the biggest operators on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, received the maximum possible grant from a Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund.

The grant was £100,000 more than an award made from the same fund to the Fringe Society, which had warned publicly that it was “facing insolvency” after this year's event had to be called off.

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However Underbelly’s help from the fund, which is administered by Scottish Enterprise, has never been officially announced. The Fringe’s support was revealed at the daily coronavirus briefing in June.

Mark Ronson headlined last year's Hogmanay celebrations in Edinburgh. Picture: Ryan Buchanan

Underbelly has separately secured £584,751 in UK Government support under a separate £257 million rescue package announced by Arts Council England last month.

It is one of three Fringe operators to receive support from the Scottish Government’s £120 million fund, which closed to applicants in May after being created to help “viable but vulnerable” companies through the pandemic. Gilded Balloon and Pleasance received £150,000 and £100,000 respectively.

However Underbelly is still working on alternative plans for Hogmanay in Edinburgh next month – even though all major public events have been cancelled and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has ruled out relaxing restrictions over new year to allow household gatherings.

It still has a contract worth up to £800,000 with Edinburgh City Council for Hogmanay after approving proposals that would "allow people in Edinburgh to reflect on 2020 and to look forward positively to 2021.”

More than 70,000 revellers flocked into Edinburgh city centre for last year's Hogmanay festivities. Picture: Liam Anderstrem

Creative Scotland has confirmed that Underbelly has been awarded £175,000 from the Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund for a Hogmanay project which is yet to be announced. Another government agency, EventScotland, which funded the Hogmanay celebrations to the tune of £200,000 last year, has also confirmed it will be supporting Underbelly’s plans, but would not reveal its grant.

New figures revealed last month showed that the six-week-long winter festivals generated more than £9 million in turnover last year. Underbelly’s staffing costs and overheads totalled more than £3.4 million.

The last winter festivals were dogged by controversy after councillors were kept in the dark over a contract extension for Underbelly and an expansion of the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens which was later found to have flouted planning regulations. There was further controversy over the handling of a new wristband scheme to allow residents access to their own homes on Hogmanay.

A spokesman for Scottish Enterprise said: “The Pivotal Enterprise Resilience Fund was designed to support SMEs that had been made vulnerable by COVID-19, but could present a strong business case for a viable future.

“Each application received was rigorously assessed in terms of number of employees, wage levels, impact on supply chains, local communities and supply to critical sectors.

"All companies to receive PERF support passed eligibility criteria checks and were able to demonstrate a clear need for emergency funding, as well as their vitalness to the economy.”

A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “We’re very grateful to Scottish Enterprise for our grant. This has been specifically awarded to help retain our staff in Scotland and rebuild in 2021 following a year when we have sadly seen all of our festivals and events cancelled due to the pandemic.”

A council spokeswoman said: “We continue to work together to deliver something in keeping with the current public health guidance and will make a further announcement in due course.”

A spokeswoman for EventScotland said: “We have been having ongoing discussions with Underbelly on their plans for marking this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and will be supporting them to reflect both the Scottish Government and Edinburgh City Council's advice that Hogmanay is best enjoyed at home this year."

However Cliff Hague, chair of the Cockburn Association, which has called for a total overhaul of the Hogmanay celebrations in future, said: “At a time when there are so any demands on the public purse, and so many family finances are stretched, it is hard to justify the largesse given to the commercial promoters of Edinburgh Christmas.”

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