Only a few years ago the waning popularity of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay was a serious concern for Council leaders, now is not the time to cut funding, writes Brian Ferguson.
As an icy blast descended on Edinburgh a few days ago with snow capping the hills visible from my desk at The Scotsman’s office, it was hard to recall how mild the city had felt over its Hogmanay celebrations.
Maybe I was wrapped up a lot more then than in the middle of August, but I swear I’ve had chillier nights on the Castle esplanade taking in the Tattoo than watching Paolo Nutini strut his stuff at the Night Afore concert.
Watching the remarkable fireworks display from an eerily quiet vantage point high up on the Mound, the most memorable moment was actually the vast roar which echoed around the city once it was over. Six hours after declaring a complete sell-out, it was perhaps the point at which the organisers could breathe a sigh of relief, and watch the remarkable footage roll in.
While the event ran for a week over the millennium celebrations and attracted more than 180,000 revellers, more than twice the figure seen these days, most tickets were free back then. Box office business this year was said to be the briskest since the event launched in 1993.
There is little doubt that more tickets were sold this year than ever before, thanks to the securing of an extra show from Nutini after his Hogmanay gig sold out in just three hours, and making both the torchlight parade and the ceilidh dance finale at the National Museum of Scotland all-ticket for the first time. Sold-out signs were also posted well in advance for events including Scot:Lands, the New Year’s Day festival staged across the Old Town, and the Loony Dook, which drew thousands of spectators to South Queensferry.
It is only a few years since the popularity of the Hogmanay celebrations seemed to be struggling. Funding problems led to the shelving of the free “night afore” street carnival and the shrinking of the festival to a three-day event, while an outdoor events programme in Holyrood Park vanished without trace.
Capacity crowds should be a cause for celebration for the whole city, but particularly the council, which retains overall responsibility for the event. But the festival’s undoubted success has been tainted by the inexplicable decision to cut funding for both the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals at the very moment they appear ripe for further development and expansion.
The idea seems so wrong-headed that it had to be explained to me several times that the budget for next year’s Hogmanay festival could be little more than a half of what it was for the most recent festivities. The impact of a 20 per cent cut in the current £1 million subsidy is expected to be more than matched by the need to foot new policing and licensing costs.
Someone in the City Chambers clearly believes ploughing £1.25m into the two winter festivals is offering poor value for money – despite the most recent independent research showing that the two events generate more than £240m for the economy.
I suspect the same people are pushing for the introduction of a tourist tax to help reduce further the council’s contribution to its festivals – despite the clear risk of such a proposition when Edinburgh is about to grapple with the impact of Brexit. If events like Hogmanay are diluted and diminished next year, the council will only have itself to blame.
In the meantime, organisers of Edinburgh’s other festivals will likely be nervous about the precedent that has been set and the kind of funding cuts being lined up for less lucrative, high-profile events.