Christmas market: Why is Charlie Wood their darling? – Kevin Buckle

The backlash was inevitable – so why were Underbelly allowed to proceed with erecting scaffolding in Princes Street Gardens for the Christmas market, wonders Kevin Buckle

Saturday, 2nd November 2019, 6:00 am
Charlie Wood, right, with Underbelly partner Ed Bartlam, in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Jon Savage
Charlie Wood, right, with Underbelly partner Ed Bartlam, in Princes Street Gardens. Picture: Jon Savage

A couple of years ago I had the idea that a mini village of stalls could be set up as part of the Christmas market with each one promoting a different part of Edinburgh to visitors. It was well received and I discussed it with various councillors and council officials.

I foolishly assumed that this would simply be a case of the council telling Underbelly that this was a good idea and they should find space for it in their set-up. Instead, however, I was regularly told that worthy as the idea was Underbelly were there to make money and simply giving up space for free was out of the question.

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Scaffolding is erected in Princes Street Gardens East in preparation for the Christmas market. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Sometimes I would make the points that the market as far as I was concerned was bad for the city centre businesses, that the attraction to visitors was overstated and that Edinburgh deserved something a little more unique than the rather generic market Underbelly provided that was no different to Christmas markets seen elsewhere.

What surprised me was how defensive many, but to be fair not all, were in supporting Underbelly and in particular Charlie Wood. Time and again the description I would be given of the marvellous work Charlie had done bore no relation to the reality as I saw it.

I would be reminded repeatedly that Charlie was a lovely bloke and while I have absolutely no reason to dispute this I didn’t see it as a basis for condoning and indeed praising what Underbelly did.

Even faced with the most glaring examples of local businesses losing out to the Christmas market, the Underbelly believers were unfazed in their devotion.

Fast forward to the current fiasco in Princes Street Gardens and given how cosy the relationship between Underbelly and the council had seemed, it doesn’t come as a great surprise that they had managed to go ahead with something that would probably not have been accepted if made public.

However, given the inevitability of the backlash it is hard to believe that even those councillors and officials that did know about it could have understood the enormity of what was being proposed. If they did it would mean they cynically decided that it was best to wait until so much had been done it couldn’t be stopped than risk it not going ahead at all.

One thing is certain and that is that there were other options than building such a huge structure and without doubt to then extend Underbelly’s contract without discussion for two years was taking delegated powers way beyond what most people would consider reasonable. There is an overwhelming feeling that this has all been done in such a way that this year’s market would go ahead despite the lack of planning permission and then Underbelly would get most of next year to think up their next reason why their 2020 Christmas market has to be along the same lines.

Without doubt the two-year extension of their contract has to be revisited and there needs to be complete transparency as to what extra costs were incurred by their plan and why they needed three years for those costs to be recovered.