'Trojan Horse' fears over Edinburgh's Christmas festival revamp

Fears have been raised that a revamp of Edinburgh's Christmas festival in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic could be a "Trojan Horse" for increased commercialisation of public streets this winter.

Edinburgh's Christmas festival is expected to be radically revamped this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Tim Edgeler
Edinburgh's Christmas festival is expected to be radically revamped this year in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: Tim Edgeler

Heritage experts and community groups have also expressed concern that spreading stalls around a much larger part of the city centre than previously, including the Royal Mile, George Street and Castle Street.

Part of East Princes Street Gardens and The Mound precinct would also be used for pop-up stalls and bars again this year.

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There are also worries that spreading out attractions will increase the risk of a spike in cases and a “local lockdown” having to be imposed due to difficulties in ensuring social distancing, health and safety measures, and test and trace systems, are all in place.

A city-wide ban on pop-up bars and food stalls is being demanded to avoid them competing with permanent city centre businesses during the six-week festival, which is due to get underway in November.

The Cockburn Association and the five community councils also want to see the removal of attractions like the “Big Wheel” and “Star Flyer” from East Princes Street Gardens.

It emerged last week that events company Underbelly, which has an annual contract worth up to £800,000 with the city council to run the city’s Christmas and Hogmanay events, had reached agreement with councillors on a new-look line-up.

It is aimed at ensuring some Christmas attractions can go ahead this year with social distancing measures in place, while protecting the grass in the gardens, which hosted the city’s biggest ever market last year and was not fully reopened to the public until July.

More than 2.6 million people flocked to Edinburgh's Christmas market last winter in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Lloyd Smith

The joint statement was published ahead of councillors meeting to discuss the new-look festivities on Thursday.

It states: “We support the direction of travel away from the arrangements that caused so much damage to East Princes Street Gardens and distress to residents in 2019/20.

"We remain of the view that the gardens are not appropriate for the Big Wheel, the Star Flyer and market stalls next to the Scott Monument.

"The serious impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in terms of public health and economic uncertainty mean that the Council needs to be extra cautious and fully transparent in considering how the city chooses to celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay this winter safely.

"Recent experience from Scotland and elsewhere strongly associates the transmission of Covid-19 with food and drink establishments and it is not clear from the report how this will be managed especially given that this has been a major element of past offerings by the Christmas market.

"Enhanced security and people management for all aspects of the winter festivals is an absolute priority with respect to public protection.

“Although there is restricted access to the gardens, other dispersed elements should have the same level of management to prevent overcrowding, protect health and ensure social distancing. Even with pre-booked tickets and virtual queuing software, it is inevitable that physical arrangements will need to be put in place. This should be built into any approval process.

“No loss of public circulation space should result from measures put in place for these events. For the avoidance of doubt, such management and social distancing measures must not be a ‘Trojan Horse’ for increased commodification of public spaces including streets.

“There should be no pop-up bars and food outlets, especially as these create direct competition, not additionality, to local all-year round businesses such as bars and cafes.

"We also feel that pop-up bars would be particular problematic to the effectiveness of any test and trace system.

“The proposed dispersal of operations across the city centre does not equate to a scaled-down version of the winter festivals. It is unclear if the intention is to maintain the volume of stalls and leases to ensure financial viability.”

Terry Levinthal, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “Local businesses must come first and foremost.

"To this end, we suggest that there should be no pop-up bars or food outlets, as these act as direct competitors to local establishments who need all the help they can get.

"We welcome the significant reduction in presence in East Princes Street Gardens, and the apparent deletion of the space deck that caused such controversy last year.

"We have advocated a full risk management process as well as enhanced security and people management requirements ensuring that any social distancing or other public safety guidelines are robustly adhered to. The paper going to the council was light on detail.

"As such, we continue to have concerns about what might happen on the ground.”

A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “We have enjoyed working collaboratively to ensure the council’s vision for the winter festivals can become a reality.

"Working together, our absolute priority is public safety and our aim for both events is to put Edinburgh first.

“Once agreed by the council, we are confident these will be events the city will be proud of, which will support the community and preserve the city’s global status as a destination for Christmas and Hogmanay.

"We are very excited about the events and, once the council has reached its decision, we look forward to working further with the council and other key partners on the delivery of the programme, with the number one priority of public safety.”

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