Edinburgh festivals: What would happen to city's heritage reputation if it allowed them to decline? – Brian Ferguson

After almost a year-and-a-half writing about the post-lockdown future of the Edinburgh festivals, there was inevitably something a bit surreal about returning to my first live event this summer.
George Square Gardens has reopened as a festival venue for the summer.George Square Gardens has reopened as a festival venue for the summer.
George Square Gardens has reopened as a festival venue for the summer.

The streets surrounding the Roxy, the only venue which hosted live events as part of the Edinburgh Jazz and Blues Festival this month, were eerily quiet compared to the last time I’d ventured down them at the height of the 2019 Fringe.

The sparsely populated audience and table service around the auditorium were a far cry from the last sold-out show I’d attended there.

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But there was still a real thrill to be back inside one of the most striking and intimate spaces for live performances in the city.

Like the vast majority of Edinburgh’s other permanent venues, the Roxy’s building dates back more than a century.

Most of these have, of course, been locked up and closed to the public since March 2020. But that is, thankfully and somewhat miraculously, about to change.

A monumental effort, many months in the planning, is underway to reginite the city’s annual cultural celebration after the enforced 2020 hiatus.

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Current comparisons with 1947, when Edinburgh’s first festivals were staged in the aftermath of the Second World War, may feel much more tangible when audiences return to more than 80 venues due to reopen over the next month. The next few weeks feel like they could be the most momentous in the history of the festivals.

Yet the run-up has been tainted by a depressing if not entirely unpredictable backdrop.

It only took a few days after Unesco stripped Liverpool of its world heritage status before it was being claimed that efforts to help the Fringe recover this year would lead to the same fate befalling Edinburgh.

There has been a steady escalation of rhetoric against the Fringe and the city’s other main cultural events throughout the pandemic from the Cockburn Association, the heritage watchdog, to the extent that it now brands them them as “exclusive”, “corporate” and “commercial” events.

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Firmly in the firing line are outdoor venues which have been approved under long-standing council policies to support and facilitate the festivals, given their importance to the city’s reputation and economy, without a whimper of protest from previous Cockburn regimes.

Now, though, we are told they are being allowed to go ahead under “a thoughtless and short-term approach will only hasten the day when we join Liverpool on the international naughty list”.

The Cockburn has recently railed against the inclusion of stand-up comedy, circus acts and “gigs” in festival programmes and even suggested that the city's cultural offering is nothing more than “fog” – which presumably needs banished for the real Edinburgh to reveal itself.

But if the Scottish government and the city council did take leave of their senses and stop funding Edinburgh’s festivals in 2022 what would become of the historic buildings and sites which host them every year?

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What would their decline or cancellation say about Edinburgh’s approach to its own heritage, which culture has been a cornerstone of for centuries?

And what would Unesco really make of the city turning its back on one of the things the city is truly internationally renowned for – arguably more than anything else?

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Neil McIntosh