Royal Mile traders slam 'shambolic' launch of Edinburgh's Christmas festival

Business chiefs in Edinburgh's Old Town have hit out over the handling of the "shambolic" launch of the city's winter festivals - claiming it led to a devastating slump in trade.

Monday, 18th November 2019, 6:46 pm

Organisers of the free event, which attracted a 12,000-strong crowd to the High Street and the Lawnmarket on Sunday, are accused of causing havoc for local traders before and during the “Light Night” event.

Original Edinburgh, a new group set up to pursue a business improvement district in the area, said footfall and takings were blighted for almost a week by the impact of the 16 shipping containers and other infrastructure brought in for the 90-minute event.

It claims business suffered a significant loss of trade and operational problems due to the suspension of licences for pavement cafes, the “mismanagement” of pedestrian traffic and problems in getting staff into their workplaces in time for the start of their shifts after key thoroughfares were blocked off.

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Around 12,000 people are estimated to have packed into the Royal Mile for the launch of Edinburgh's Christmas festivities. Picture: Ryan Buchanan.

The group said the city council and Underbelly, the events firm which has an £800,000 annual contract to produce the city’s winter festivals, needed to “significantly improve” their communication and engagement with local traders in future.

Original Edinburgh pointed out that businesses affected by the Christmas event had already suffered disruption in August thanks to the council’s Summertime Streets programme key thoroughfares closed to traffic and barriers brought to improve public safety.

Both parties have been under fire for their handling of a major expansion of the Christmas market in Princes Street Gardens, even though new infrastructure did not have planning permission.

Edinburgh's 'Light Night' curtainraiser for its winter festivals was relocated from George Street to the Royal Mile for the first time. Picture: Tim Edgeler.

The Light Night event, which was staged in George Street in recent years, was relocated to the Old Town under a shake-up of the Christmas festival which has seen the traditional ice rink axed but the number of market stalls and bars increased.

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Community groups from Edinburgh were given the chance to perform in the Light Night event, which was hosted by Forth 1 presenter Arlene Stuart. It ended with a fireworks display and an appearance from Santa flying on his sleigh over the heads of the audience.

However businesses have reported that their takings were down "considerably" in the run-up to the event.

A statement from Original Edinburgh said: "The set up for the event began on Monday 11 November and required the construction of large structures comprised of 16 shipping containers over two locations as well as the use of large construction vehicles. This made deliveries and business access difficult for the full week.

"Further, the aesthetics of the area and the blockage of pedestrianised sections of the Royal Mile resulted in reduced footfall over an already slow business period.

"High Street businesses with tables and chairs licences were advised ahead of the event by the council that their licenses would be suspended on the event day on Sunday.

"However, during part of the day, sections of the Royal Mile were closed to all pedestrian traffic, with limited exceptions granted to residents.

"Traders were not given any advance notice of the need for pedestrian closures or the timing such closures would be in effect. As a result, many businesses noted members of staff were repeatedly denied access to the High Street and were late for their shifts."

James McGregor, chair of the Original Edinburgh steering group, and owner of the Royal McGregor Whisky Bar and Restaurant, said: “As businesses, we understand the need to try new initiatives but it needs to be delivered properly and in consultation with local residents and businesses because these types of mistakes in communication have real consequences for many local traders, especially when there have been a whole host of other recent errors around Summertime Streets and the new trade waste regulations.

“The communication with local businesses about what actually would happen in terms of the preparation and the delivery of the event was shambolic, frankly.

"Even the way in which the preparation for the event was carried out was such that people were put off from coming up onto the Royal Mile.

“We’ve been out speaking with local businesses and many are reporting a significant impact on their trade as a result.

"These events can be great for our city, but it really is a case of must-do-better.

"A starting point would be much better scenario planning around the impact of putting these events on and giving local residents and businesses much more advanced notice.”

Daniela Scott, general manager of Gordon’s Trattoria restaurant, said: "Our staff were late for their shift as they were denied access to the High Street. We weren’t even told what time or that there were closures.

"How can we advise our customers and our staff if we don’t have this information ahead of time?"

A spokeswoman for Underbelly said: “We have been working with Original Edinburgh to inform their membership since early November with full details of the event including a copy of the temporary traffic regulation order.

“We also delivered letters with all relevant information to the businesses and residents both in the Royal Mile and surrounding area at the beginning of November.

“Around 12,000 people came to Light Night, heard some of Edinburgh’s best community choirs and saw Santa Claus fly up the Royal Mile - what a great start to Christmas.”

A spokeswoman for the city council said: “Light Night’s move to the Royal Mile was a chance to showcase the Old Town during Edinburgh’s Christmas.

“By and large the layout was well received – not least by the community groups involved and 12,000 residents who enjoyed the free festivities.

“We’re aware the organiser worked with Original Edinburgh to get the message out to local businesses and anything we can do to strengthen the communication channels with traders going forward must be looked at as we review the delivery of this year’s winter festivals.

“It’s vital everyone impacted has all the information they need and that local businesses are able to take advantage of what Christmas brings to our city.”