A Festival village which turns into student accommodation? Now there’s a thought for a canny developer - John McLellan
With only 300 shows short of the 2019 programme when around three million people watched Fringe performances, August 2020 when the only movement on the High Street was litter scattering in the wind now seem so far away.
A comprehensive report from The Scotsman’s arts correspondent Brian Ferguson cited several sources claiming ticket sales are ahead of 2018, and city centre business association Essential Edinburgh is seeing hotel bookings ahead of 2019 levels, according to its chief executive Roddy Smith. “I have heard nothing but positivity about this August,” he said.
It is not just a tribute to the enduring popularity of Edinburgh as a premium arts and entertainment destination, but to the organisers’ determination to drive forward the recovery as quickly as possible before rival cities could snatch the crown of the world’s biggest and best artistic celebration.
According to the City Council, the total attendance at all festivals in 2019 was 4,960,297, leading to a view in the SNP-Labour administration that they had become too big for the city to cope, which in turn persuaded them, with the enthusiastic collusion of the Greens, to pull the plug on Edinburgh’s marketing agency.
To an extent they might argue the decision has been vindicated because the festivals have rebounded and rebuilt without a council-backed promotional agency, and visitor numbers will also have been boosted by big crowds at Murrayfield’s concert series and the Manchester United friendly, for which no additional marketing was needed.
What happens the rest of the year remains to be seen, particularly in the six months between September and the end of February when big attractions are few and far between and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, the one event for which the Council does have responsibility, still lurches from one controversy to another.
A “Citywide Culture Strategy 2023-30” approved last December, claimed to set out “a clear way forward”, but was just full of warm, fuzzy, motherhood-and-apple-pie ideals ─ “In 2030 Edinburgh will be known across the world as a cultural capital; a fun, inspiring, safe, fair and vibrant place where it is evident that the positive impacts of culture to individual and collective wellbeing are understood” ─ but without a delivery plan or measurable targets.
In other words, a typical Edinburgh Council strategy, with deliberately vague goals so they can claim to have met them.
Individual departments are to produce detailed proposals to make the council’s new all-embracing cultural wonderland a reality, and its role as funder, licenser, venue owner, landlord and facilitator is undeniable.
But the document does not address the acute shortage of accommodation for visitors and performers alike, a key concern of all the festivals, or the council’s role as the planning authority.
Nor does it mention the extent to which council policies, like cracking down on short-term lets, and councillors’ interpretation of them, like throwing out applications for student flats, regularly act against the Festivals’ interests.
The affordable housing shortage is well documented, but it cannot be solved by hobbling the visitor economy, and a proper student accommodation strategy could also solve one of the festivals’ biggest practical concerns.
A Festival village which turns into student accommodation? Now there’s a thought for a canny developer.