A new concert arena in Edinburgh’s West Princes Street Gardens is set to win a £5 million funding pledge - after plans to hand over control of the park to an arms-length operator were dropped in the wake of a public backlash.
A rescue deal for a long-awaited replacement of the Ross Bandstand will see the city council retain full responsibility in return for helping to bankroll a £25 million revamp.
Design and fundraising work on the project is expected to begin within weeks on the new facilities, which could host up to 200 events a year if councillors endorse new proposals.
However a planned completion has been pushed back from 2021 to 2023 due to shelving of the plans for an arms-length body to run the gardens, the arena and a visitor centre overlooking the castle.
The £5 million will only be paid out if the remaining funding is secured by the Ross Development Trust, which was set up by Apex Hotels chain founder Norman Springford. Councillors previously insisted there would be no call on the taxpayer.
An official report said there was a need for a new “developer agreement” to be drawn up to ensure the “continuation of the project.” The council was asked to contribute after pledging £5 million for a concert hall in the New Town, £4 million for an overhaul of the King’s Theatre and £1 million for Leith Theatre’s restoration.
Paul Lawrence, the council’s executive director of place, said: “The council has not made any financial commitment to the infrastructure development or the redevelopment of the bandstand. This funding would only be used in the event the trust secures 80 per cent of the project costs from external sources.”
The council has insisted there will be no additional “major events” allowed in the gardens, above a current cap of five. It has previously stated that a run of concerts staged there under the banner of a festival counts as one event.
Less than a third of those who took part in a survey on the plans for the gardens were in favour of handing over any control, while almost half were opposed. Although more than half of the 1200 people surveyed backed the overall vision, just over a third said a replacement bandstand was a priority.
Nearly half of those polled wanted the gardens retained for “enjoyment and relaxation,” as well as “areas of tranquility.”
David Ellis, managing director of the Ross Development Trust, said: “It was clear that the public were not in favour of the council giving up the day to day management of the gardens. Our work over the last year has focused on being able to provide assurance to potential donors that our improvements in the gardens will be suitably maintained upon completion. We’ve worked closely with the council to come up with a new solution.
“We believe the proposed revised development agreement offers this clarity along with the council’s commitment to financially support the project.
“If the recommendations are accepted by committee we can begin the exciting work on the design development.”
Donald Wilson, the council’s culture leader, said: “We’ve had an overwhelming response to this consultation and the exercise has been extremely helpful.
“Thanks to the feedback received, we’ve been able to make adjustments to the proposals. It is also clear from the results of the consultation that the citizens of Edinburgh are really behind the project’s vision and the possibilities it will bring.”
Karen Doran, vice-convener of the council’s environment committee, added: “In the heart of the city centre, sitting in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle between the Old and New Towns, these gardens are one of our city’s greatest assets.
“The recommendations in this report present an opportunity for the council and the Ross Development Trust to truly revitalise the area in keeping with the feedback we’ve received, with the city in control of the future operational management.
“Already, thanks to the Ross Development Trust, we’ve seen the Ross Fountain restored to its original condition, beautiful upgrades to the Gardener’s Cottage in the gardens, and an international design competition to find a winning architectural concept.
"We’re now looking forward to discussing this report at committee and working with the trust under a carefully drawn up management plan to realise the full potential of this important project and its design."