Edinburgh Festivals at risk from complacency

Litter has been cited as a problem during the Festival. Picture: Sandy Young

Litter has been cited as a problem during the Festival. Picture: Sandy Young

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A SERIES of “intensive care” measures to improve the look of Edinburgh during its world-famous festivals is being demanded in the wake of their first-ever “health check”.

Organisers want action as part of a drive to ensure the city remains ahead of growing numbers of overseas rivals and does not “become complacent” about its festivals.

Senior figures have told the city council of their dismay at levels of cleanliness during signature events such as the Edinburgh International Festival, the Fringe and the Tattoo. They have also raised concerns over the lack of any “dressing” to welcome visitors to the city, problems securing access to key parks and other open spaces, and a lack of co-operation from some officials over events which are worth £261 million a year to the economy.

The first-ever audit of the festivals has also exposed fears about the possible departure of experienced staff from the council and a “potential loss of detailed knowledge” as part of its redundancy programme.

The council has also been criticised for a perceived lack of flexibility over charges imposed on events grappling with their own budget cuts.

The criticisms have emerged ahead of the 70th anniversary of the city’s festivals next summer, for which the council has already allocated an additional £200,000.

A report on the feedback from the festival directors, whose criticisms have not been individually attributed, said they had also made “numerous positive comments” about the support they received from the council and singled out several officers for praise. The new report, by the council’s executive director of place, Paul Lawrence, said “immediate action” had already been taken in response to feedback from the directors, who also represented events such as the book, jazz and film festivals, as well as the Mela multicultural celebration.

Mr Lawrence said: “Festival colleagues made suggestions for better communication, more awareness of the festivals as key stakeholders in and contributors to the city’s success, and more intensive care of the city’s public spaces.

“City dressing could be more extensive and prominent and, along with good signage, would help to promote all the festivals and welcome visitors to the city. The festivals are keen to play a greater role in this. Some directors expressed dissatisfaction with the cleanliness of the city and whether the council could provide the requisite high levels of care and maintenance for the public artworks it has adopted in recent years.

“While the festivals understand the pressure on council budgets, and the need to increase charges, they too face financial pressures, and would appreciate some variation in charges, retention of dispensations and more of a co-production approach where appropriate, given the vital contribution festivals make to the city’s overall economic success.

“The current major organisational change in the council will see rapid turnover of staff, and a potential loss of detailed knowledge, acquired over years of liaising with festivals, about the support they need in order to deliver their programmes successfully.

“The festivals would value opportunities to meet council colleagues across services and at different levels, to raise awareness of the festivals, and provide key briefings.”

The “health check”, which involved a series of meetings between council officials and organisers of the city’s 12 major events, was ordered by the authority in the wake of a ten-year blueprint to safeguard the future of the festivals.

Published last May, the Thundering Hooves study warned of the need to take action to ensure the city and its festivals “do not rest on their laurels” as well as the need to address a host of infrastructure “weaknesses” in the face of mounting competition.

A key recommendation was that the city provides “an unrivalled experience for its citizens, and the artists, audiences and opinion-formers from around the world”.

A spokeswoman for the Edinburgh International Festival said: “The introduction of an annual festivals ‘health check’ by the city council provides more scope for ongoing dialogue about the successful delivery of the Festival.

“We will continue to work with the council and the other festivals to maintain and improve the festival experience for Edinburgh’s residents and visitors.”

Adam Wilkinson, director of the Edinburgh World Heritage Trust, said: “The festivals help create the ebb and flow of people, which has become such a part of the character of the city centre, which acts as a most stunning, sparkling theatre set.

“There is a tremendous opportunity here to work with the festivals to strengthen the quality of the public spaces that play host to the annual cultural pilgrimage, but to the lasting benefit of residents, visitors and the city’s workers.”

The council insists that extra resources were allocated to the city centre last summer to ensure the streets were kept as clean and tidy as possible, with staff working round-the-clock.

Extra environmental wardens, street cleansing staff and litter pickers were deployed, while additional and larger bins were deployed in “hotspot” areas such as the Royal Mile.

Councillor Lesley Hinds, the city’s environment leader, said: “We want our ever-increasing number of residents and visitors to have a positive experience and keeping our city clean and green during festival times is a big part of this.

“Overall levels of street cleanliness are improving across the city, but there are still issues during peak periods like the August festivals, and we are focusing our efforts on making improvements through enforcement actions and other initiatives.”

Councillor Richard Lewis, culture leader at the city council, added: “With a refreshed culture plan in place, and Edinburgh and the festivals looking ahead to celebrating the 70th anniversary in 2017, it feels like the right time to monitor the state of the city’s relationship with its festivals.

“The feedback has been encouraging.

“It’s clear the fundamental support provided by the council is working well and festival directors have been largely positive, but specific issues and concerns need to be addressed. Our action plan will help us to improve in these areas.

“I’m excited to see the health check become an annual report so that across the board, council services can work better together to meet the needs of our festivals.”