City council leader Cammy Day has pledged to explore ways of reviving the use of the historic Ross Bandstand arena as a “gathering place” in the heart of the city. He also suggested there was a need to revisit recently-introduced curbs on the staging of large-scale concerts.
A review of access restrictions to the historic park, introduced at the King’s Stables Road entrance in 2019 due to the risk of rockfalls from Edinburgh Castle, will be carried out to help event organisers.
Business leaders and heritage campaigners have stressed the need for further investment in the facilities at the bandstand, which dates back to 1935 and replaced a previous facility created for the opening of the gardens in 1877, as well as improve access to the park.
A new four-show limit on events with a capacity of between 6,000 and 10,000 threatens the future of concert series like the Edinburgh Summer Sessions, which require a temporary stage to be built.
Promoters DF Concerts, who brought the likes of Lewis Capaldi, Primal Scream, Simple Minds and Travis to the gardens, hit out at the council in the autumn after being forced to pull the plug on plans on further shows this summer.
However, the council did allow three back-to-back concerts to be staged in the gardens as part of the first Hogmanay festival to go ahead since 2019.
Altered Images and Sophie Ellis-Bextor appeared at a Night Afore Disco Party event, the Pet Shop Boys staged the revived Concert in the Gardens on Hogmanay, and Hamish Hawk, Elephant Sessions and Tide Lines all appeared at a new Final Fling event on New Year's Day.
The council had been pursuing a multi-million pound revamp of West Princes Street Gardens in the run-up to the Covid pandemic, with an American-led bid winning an international design competition in 2017.
However, the Quaich Project, which was partly bankrolled by philanthropist and Apex Hotels founder Norman Springford, had faced growing criticism from heritage groups over the scale of development planned, and was shelved in 2020.
Cllr Day said: “I think we need to use the gardens more productively throughout the year. It’s a great place for people to gather and the bandstand itself is great.
“I know there is always a challenge from some people about how many events are held there, but I think the gardens are there to be used and enjoyed by people.
"It’s not just about big concerts. It’s a space to be used to celebrate things in the city. We need to look at the different kinds of events we can have there and use the space more productively.”
A temporary clampdown on the number of major events was approved in October after council officials recommended greater protection for the historic graveyard at St Cuthbert’s Parish Church, the only alternative for event organisers transporting equipment in and out of the gardens.
However, the national heritage agency Historic Environment Scotland (HES), which is responsible for Edinburgh Castle, later admitted there had not been any rockfall incidents recorded since 2018.
Senior officials at the council, which is responsible for all areas of the gardens at the foot of the castle rock, insist there is a need for “remedial safety measures”, which are yet to be agreed with HES.
But Cllr Day said there was also a need to have a fresh look at the issue to ensure the best possible use of the gardens.
He added: “I think that is something we need to look at closely. I would happily revisit that discussion.
“The bandstand is there to put on big events for the public. They’re not universally popular, but we need to show we’re using the gardens as best we can.
“The events that have been held there are hugely successful, but they are also small-scale enough for their impact on the city to not be great.”
Roddy Smith, chief executive of city centre business group Essential Edinburgh, one of the backers of the recent winter festivals, said: “I’m sure there would be support in the city to have more events in Princes Street Gardens. It is a resource that we need to use more, not less.
“There is the age-old problem of trying to get the balance appeasing the Cockburn Association and Edinburgh World Heritage, and making the best use of a fantastic resource right slap bang in the middle of the city centre.
"The other issue is the infrastructure needed for events. I would love to see more events in that arena, but it needs some investment and there are also the access issues around events.
"I don't remember any issues, problems or complaints around the concerts that were staged last summer. They all seemed to run pretty smoothly.
“We would definitely support more events happening there. I would think there could be some kind of agreement to allow events there over the space of a week in July or August, and over Hogmanay. I don’t think people are looking to use that space all the time.”
Cliff Hague, chair of the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh’s longest-running heritage group, said: “Cammy Day is meeting us soon, and we look forward to sharing ideas about the use and maintenance of the gardens, and other public parks and spaces.
"The collapse of the plans for a huge new performance stage and an associated hospitality centre, together with the impacts of Covid, mean that a new medium-term vision is needed. We’ve argued all along that the existing bandstand should be retained and maintained.
“Every survey for the last 30 years has found that the qualities people love most about the gardens are 'tranquillity' and 'greenness'. The problem with handing over the gardens to commercial promoters of big events is that public access and enjoyment is denied for weeks on end."