World heritage site watchdog protests over plans to revive Edinburgh's Christmas festival

The watchdog charged with protecting Edinburgh's world heritage site has raised concerns that it will be harmed by the city's revamped Christmas festival – despite an overhaul aimed at reducing its impact.

The Edinburgh World Heritage (EWH) Trust has protested over the planned use of Princes Street Gardens and George Street for the coming six-week festival, claiming the historic heart of the city will resemble a “fairground”.

The body claims the event is unsuitable for both the park, which is due to host fairground rides, market stalls and a “Santa Land”, and the historic thoroughfare, where an ice rink is due to return.

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The Cockburn Association, the city’s longest-running heritage group, has demanded a “fundamental shift” in who benefits from the festival and a greater dispersal of attractions around the city.

Edinburgh's Christmas festival is due to return at the end of November. Picture: Tim Edgeler
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Both EWH and the Cockburn Association have questioned an attempt to secure planning permission for five years by a new consortium brought in to rescue the event at the 11th hour after new operators charged with overhauling the event pulled out of a deal with the city council.

Edinburgh’s Hogmanay founders Unique Events and Fringe venue operator Assembly have joined forces to produce the Christmas festival, which has attracted controversy in previous years due to damage caused to the gardens, as well as concerns about the “over-commercialism” of public space and overcrowding problems during peak periods.

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German company Angels Event Experience secured a new contract for up to five years, which was meant to generate more than £1 million a year for the city council, but walked away in September, claiming they were no longer able to deliver their proposals.

Council leader Cammy Day has promised a “full review” into the contract’s collapse, which led to Unique and Assembly being called in just weeks before work was due to start on site.

Edinburgh's Christmas market is a huge draw to Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Lloyd Smith

However, new concerns about this year’s event have been raised ahead of planning chiefs deciding on the proposals for the use of the gardens and George Street next week.

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Jane Robertson, EWH’s head of conservation, has told the council the plans would result in a “level of harm” to the Old and New Towns.

She said: “The current proposal [for the gardens] increases the intensity of structures, in particular the fairground rides, which are not in keeping with the historic public realm. The proposal is detrimental to the character of the designed landscape and the setting of listed buildings, in particular the Scott Monument.

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“The current proposal encroaches on the designed landscape of the gardens, which was specifically designed to provide high quality open space, with temporary structures which are not in keeping with the character of their environment. The proposal causes physical wear on the public realm. While temporary in nature, it is regular and impacts on this important space for a significant period of the year.”

EWH said the “outstanding” values of George Street would be “negatively impacted” by the 80m-long ice rink, claiming it would dominate an entire block of George Street and restrict key views within the world heritage site.

A Cockburn Association statement said: “We remain concerned with the proposals as they stand, and believe that greater efforts in terms of dispersal, further reduction in use of soft surfaced areas and a greater need to support local businesses is required.”

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