Edinburgh Christmas market: Council faces most awkward questions, not Underbelly – John McLellan

Underbelly is not a fly-by-night operation and it’s hard to believe the Christmas market row is all just a terrible misunderstanding, writes John McLellan.

Thursday, 14th November 2019, 6:00 am
Underbelly bosses Ed Bartlam, left, and Charlie Wood faced a grilling from councillors. Picture: Jon Savage

Evasive, playing the city for fools, treating it with contempt; this week Underbelly duo Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood had their Christmas baubles well and truly kicked by furious councillors about their vast makeshift Christmas Market esplanade in Princes Street Gardens.

They were castigated for refusing to disclose the amount of profit they will be making from the whole Christmas and Hogmanay extravaganza to the Culture and Communities committee and I hear they were infuriated by the grilling, but given the furore the whole episode has caused they should not have been in the least bit surprised.

Few readers, if any, will have much sympathy and being coy about their profits was ill-advised when money is at the heart of such a public row which centres on contracts with the council which allowed them to construct the massive platforms.

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Charlie Wood’s assertion that “We didn’t know till October 12 if we had an event” stretched credibility, but have they played us for fools, as my colleague Cllr Phil Doggart alleged? That rather depends on what they were told was permissible and Cllr Doggart pointedly added “or anyone else”, because surely Underbelly could not have acted alone.

They were in discussion with officials throughout and we now know the scale of the engineering work needed in the Gardens was known in April and the small matter of planning consent was raised in August but outline proposals or what permissions were required were not mentioned in the papers presented to councillors. How Underbelly felt able to proceed without planning permission remains unanswered.

Inept or negligent

But it goes back to this time last year when allegations, unfounded as it turned out, were made that Underbelly was cutting down trees in the Gardens when in truth permission had been granted for their removal as part of the National Galleries’ revamp and the market was being built around the stumps.

At that point someone should have realised the Galleries’ project would impact on this year’s event and found out what the plan might be, but it appears no-one checked.

The council is involved at every stage of this saga – it’s the planning authority so knew what the Galleries project involved, it’s the Gardens owner with a responsibility for their upkeep, it commissions Edinburgh’s Christmas so should know precisely what its contractors are planning, and as the planning authority it should apply the correct procedures in the World Heritage site.

To accept that Underbelly alone has treated the city with contempt leads to the conclusion that the council has been grossly inept in the way Princes Street Gardens has been managed over the past year in allowing such a situation to arise.

An alternative interpretation is that Underbelly has not acted with disdain but has done what it was allowed to do, or even that they were encouraged to proceed on the basis that the planning regulations were a just a technical hurdle about which they needn’t have worried. Now the council has to licence the events and it is not Underbelly which has decided to deal with it in secret.

It is hard to believe the council has been caught out by a couple of sharp operators out to make a fast buck, and it’s all been a terrible misunderstanding only spotted by the Cockburn Association. Underbelly is not a fly-by-night operation and this is not like someone sticking up a kitchen extension and the neighbours grassing them up.

This is one of the most iconic places in the United Kingdom and is council-owned, so the most awkward questions remain for the council to answer, not just Underbelly.

Detailed reports about how next year’s event will be managed are very welcome and necessary, but for all the justifiable fury at Tuesday’s committee we are no nearer to the truth. Meanwhile what’s left of public faith in the council to manage its most valuable assets is eroding.