Ousting the Fringe from the New Town for the Edinburgh Festival’s 70th birthday celebrations was a mistake, city culture leaders have admitted.
Donald Wilson, the city’s new culture leader, has demanded a rethink for 2018 after a scathing attack from Fringe promoters who lost the right to stage shows in St Andrew Square Garden.
He is to seek talks with the Fringe Society to help ensure shows are able to return there next year.
The city council leases the square, which had £2.6 million of public money spent on it before it opened to the public in 2008, from various property owners.
Finance giant Standard Life, one of the major sponsors of the Edinburgh International Festival, has been blamed for the ban on Fringe shows, which was confirmed while the EIF was in talks to stage its own opening event in the square.
Thousands of people flocked to the square and its garden at the weekend for the free sound and light show, sponsored by Standard Life, which has a new headquarters building there.
Fringe promoters say they have never been given a proper explanation for the demise of the garden as a venue for shows after it was used for the last three seasons.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Hollywood actor Brian Cox, singer Karine Polwart, actress Elaine C Smith, late-night cabaret show La Clique and the musical Sunshine on Leith were among the big draws.
The clampdown on the use of the garden also affected the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival, which was forced to relocate shows to a new venue in West Princes Street Gardens.
Fringe chief executive Shona McCarthy has already pledged to argue the case for a rethink over the use of the square, which is expected to remain empty until the end of August. The garden is managed by the business group Essential Edinburgh on behalf of the local authority and the owners.
Cllr Wilson, who was the city’s Lord Provost when the St Andrew Square decision was made, was appointed to the culture brief at the council following the local government elections in May.
He said: “I’m a great fan of The Stand, so I’m saddened at what has happened.
“It is important to use areas like Charlotte Square and St Andrew Square for the festivals. They are a fantastic resource for the city. It’s a shame an accommodation couldn’t be reached.
“It sounds like there has been a communication issue.
“If we think about these things in advance and ensure the right people get together surely we can avoid these things happening again. I want to speak to the Fringe about what has happened to try to make sure it does not happen in future.”
When news of the ban on Fringe shows emerged in February, Essential Edinburgh claimed the decision had been made following talks between the various property owners and the city council.
A joint statement issued at the time said: “Everyone agrees that St Andrew Square Garden is a superb, green space in the heart of the city to be enjoyed by local people, visitors and those who work in the city centre all year round. In other words, it is a space for relaxation, as well as providing a pleasing interlude in the pedestrian journey through the city centre. Its importance as a pedestrian route linking the east and west of the city centre will grow as the new Edinburgh St James development comes out of the ground.
“There was also unanimous agreement that – at appropriate times of the year – the Garden will be animated with high quality activity that will not adversely impact on the look and feel of the space, and that activity will be designed to minimise disruption to the garden.”
Speaking ahead of the Bloom curtain-raiser last week, Kenny O’Brien, director of The Stand, said the Fringe had been effectively booted out of the square to make way for the EIF and Standard Life event, and accused them of using Essential Edinburgh as a “mouthpiece”.
He said at the time: “A celebration of the 70th anniversary could have been achieved without shutting down the Fringe and jazz festivals in the square. We’d gladly have collaborated.”
Nica Burns, director of tbe Edinburgh Comedy Awards, said the St Andrew Square “spat” had echoes of what had happened when the Fringe was set up in 1947, when eight theatre companies were excluded from the first Edinburgh International Festival.
She added: “People have to remember that the Fringe, in its glorious free-for-all, is full of people who are real cultural entrepreneurs who are taking their own personal risks.
“It has been a training ground for so many people over the years. There is nowhere else like Edinburgh for that. We should be very proud of it.”
A spokeswoman for Standard Life said: “Anyone wishing to plan an event can go to Essential Edinburgh, and it is assessed on a case by case basis.
“What the owners want to do, once the main festivals are over, is to have discussions with all the festival operators and see if we can put together a planned programme for the entire year... which does not impact on the intended use of the gardens.
“We are also discussing creating permanent infrastructure, something that could work for those putting on events and not impact the use of the square.”