Edinburgh's winter festivals face shake-up after poll reveals divided opinions

Edinburgh's winter festivals are set to undergo a radical rethink after an opinion poll suggested a lack of public support for “mass gatherings”, demand for events to be more spread out across the city, and opposition to funfair rides and stalls selling alcohol.

The city council has committed to keep staging official celebrations after more than 86 per cent of those surveyed backed the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals continuing.

Nearly three-quarters of businesses surveyed said they had benefited in terms of turnover and footfall from the two festivals, which have been valued at more than £158 million for the economy.

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However, the council is set to overhaul how they are organised in future in the wake of criticism of overcrowding, expensive tickets for events and attractions, and the environmental impact of the festivals.

Around 30,000 revellers are expected to flock to Edinburgh city centre for the return of the city's Hogmanay festival. Picture: David Cheskin

Events like the world-famous street party and torchlight procession are facing an uncertain future after “mass gatherings” were found to be the least popular element of the city’s new year celebrations.

However, two-thirds of organisations surveyed said they wanted these large-scale events to continue, while they were backed by more than three-quarters of respondents aged 18 to 24.

Although announced by the council in the summer of 2019, the independent survey, which attracted 8,614 responses, was not launched until earlier this year while lockdown restrictions were still in place.

Just 46 per cent of those surveyed said they had previously attended the Hogmanay celebrations, compared to 89 per cent who had been to the Christmas festival.

Edinburgh's Hogmanay festival has been staged since 1993-4. Picture: Roberto Ricciuti

Industry insiders say it will be difficult to stage the most popular elements for Hogmanay - including a fireworks display, light shows and live music performances - without a ticketed street party.

Food and drink were said to be the most popular elements for future Christmas festivals, along with musical performances and children’s activities. However, the sale of alcoholic drinks and funfair rides were the least popular.

Respondents called for the festivities to become more family-friendly, cheaper and better spread across the city in future.

Underbelly, the events company which has organised the two festivals for the council since 2017, said it had already incorporated public feedback into the planning for this year’s programmes.

More than 92,000 people attended the opening weekend of Edinburgh's Christmas festival this year. Picture Ian Georgeson

The Christmas festival has expanded into West Princes Street Gardens while an ice rink has been installed on George Street in a bid to ease possible overcrowding and help spread economic benefit wider across the city centre.

The capacity of the Hogmanay street party has been reduced by more than half to 30,000 this year, with the main arena reduced and no alcohol on sale at the event.

The two festivals are expected to have more of a focus on Scottish culture and supporting local businesses in the wake of the poll.

However it is not clear how they will be funded next year, when they may have different producers. Under the current deal with Underbelly, income from the Christmas festival is used to help pay for the Hogmanay programme.

More than 92,000 people flocked to Edinburgh's Christmas festival last weekend. Picture: Ian Georgeson Photography

A report from market research company Progressive states: “There was overwhelming support for winter celebrations in Edinburgh to continue.

“The main reasons for not attending Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations were overcrowding, [that they were] designed for tourists and too expensive.

“The majority saw the celebrations as being welcoming for tourists, but they were less likely to be seen as welcoming to residents. Most agreed that they are good for businesses, but few perceived them as affordable or environmentally sustainable.

“Edinburgh respondents were less positive than respondents from the rest of Scotland and the UK about the winter celebrations being welcoming, enjoyable, unique affordable, beneficial to business and environmentally sustainable.”

Council leader Adam McVey said: “Our winter festivals have grown in size and popularity over the years and have created some amazing experienced and images that have shown Edinburgh at its best.

“However, if we’re to make the fun and enjoyment of winter sustainable, we must listen and respond to the views of our residents and other stakeholders.

"Through this major consultation, we’ve got a better idea of how they regard the celebrations, both positive and negative.

“The results are very encouraging, but, as expected, respondents highlighted a range of issues that we will factor into our planning for future years.

“Some of these issues were already known to us, particularly in relation to pressure on the city centre, and this year’s lay-out reflects this as we look to respond to concerns and aspirations of residents and business.

"But we know from the positive experiences of the summer festivals that we can and must do more to spread the benefits across our communities.”

Depute council leader Cammy Day added: “The festive period is an extremely special time for our city and, as well as contributing to the wellbeing of our residents, our winter festivals deliver real economic impact, benefitting tourism, hospitality and leisure sectors in particular.

“It’s fantastic to see there’s a clear desire to keep the winter celebrations with many respondents commenting on how they are now part of Edinburgh’s tradition, and how much they were missed in 2020.

“However, it was also hugely important to hear what concerns there are and what people would like to see more of. We’ll now be able to take people’s comments and ideas into account.”

Underbelly directors Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam said: “The views of local residents and businesses are always at the forefront of our planning for Edinburgh’s winter festivals, so to have nearly 90 per cent approval for our programming is hugely encouraging.

“In advance of seeing this report and in the planning of this year’s events, we think we’ve taken many of the recommendations on board and based on the response to date, the events are being hugely enjoyed by Edinburgh residents.

"That said, reports like this are extremely valuable and we shall wait to see how the council decides to move ahead next year before deciding whether to throw our hat back in the ring.”

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