Overcoming festival problems takes two to tango - Tommy Sheppard
Over 50,000 performances of more than 3,500 different shows. It’s a remarkable achievement to recover from the pandemic which closed our city three years ago. I salute those who have worked so tirelessly to make it happen facing down challenges of labour shortages, rising costs, the cost-of-living squeeze on audience budgets and the turmoil in short-term rented accommodation.
But there are problems ahead and now that we’re over the existential threat we should start thinking about them. The first is getting this city to love its festival in a way other cities love theirs. Many local people revel in the weird and wonderful array of performances on their doorstep. But many see the festival as something that is done to them, not for them.
The Fringe started in the city centre, it’s where most of the venues were. But over the decades it has tried to expand to other parts of the city. This year it looks as if there’s been an artistic implosion into the Old Town. The western end of my constituency is a big rectangle bordered by Princes Street to the north and Melville Drive to the south. Lothian Road sets the western border and the Pleasance/St Leonards the eastern. It’s less than one square mile. And it hosts 90 per cent of the Fringe.
As I turned onto London Road from Leith Walk on Wednesday it was as if the Fringe – and the other festivals – stopped. Going out past Meadowbank and Jock’s Lodge and down to Porty you would have no clue there was anything on. In part this is because the journey back has been cautious. The Fringe is a commercial world. Venues have to sell tickets or drink or both with no public subsidy. So, people look to what they know. And what they know is the Old Town.
Back in 1998 the Fringe programme boasted 168 venues compared to today’s 248. Still the world’s largest arts festival then. 25 years ago, 12 of those Fringe venues were in Leith. Today, even with the new tram link, there are fewer. Not good.
An accommodation crisis has been postponed. We should use that to plan a series of exemptions for the artists that make the festivals. I strongly support regulation of short-term lets. But we mustn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.
Someone offering festival lodging in a spare room in their own home shouldn’t be entrapped in bureaucracy. And we could improve regulation by creating a not-for-profit lettings agency – backed by the city, festivals and government. Owners using that agency could do so without the need for licenses or permissions for the period of the festival.
There’s more. Much more, from creating training and employment for local people to using the festival to enhance our city’s schools. It does of course take two to tango. So, much as I exhort those running the festivals to embrace the city that hosts it, we in turn need to make it our own. Perhaps for starters the council could put up a sign saying welcome to festival city – they did 30 years ago.
Tommy Sheppard is MP for Edinburgh East and SNP Constitutional Affairs Spokesperson