Jim Orr: Fringe benefits or naked opportunism?
The Fringe and other August festivals are over for another year and well over 100,000 performers, support workers and spectators have packed up and headed home. The annual buzz is gone for another year. But how welcome do we permanent residents make these visitors feel during their short stay here in Edinburgh?
Taking accommodation for example, this is obviously at a premium as it is inherently limited in a relatively small city like ours. This year the Fringe partnered up with a prominent online letting agency and now it’s easier than ever for anyone with a spare home or room to get it leased out with minimal fuss. This provides welcome additional choices for our visitors, but there are calls for regulation to counter the numerous adverse effects of short-term lets. In particular, the reduced access to housing for local families directly exacerbates the homelessness challenges of the city which the council is working hard to address. But another less obvious adverse effect is that short-term lets can also be detrimental to the reputation of the city, in particular because, with such a huge excess of demand over supply, (very) high prices can be commanded.
“Exploitation” is not a nice word to use but speak to a few of our Festival visitors and some of the stories they tell are eye-watering. One performer I know was offered a modest two-bedroom tenement flat in St Leonards for a staggering £10,000 for the month of August – that’s over £320 per night. “It’s as if”, he told me, “they were looking to earn enough money to last them for the rest of the year”. “Why go out and work when desperate visitors can fund a leisurely life?” was the message he heard.
This was a performer from Central Asia who with his two colleagues funded themselves to fulfill their dream of performing at the Edinburgh Fringe. And they boosted our economy and cultural offering in the process.
Such experiences are commonplace and they do not give a good impression of our city.
“Edinburgh in August” is renowned worldwide as a great place to be. We offer incredible festivals in a beautiful city that remains remarkably safe with crime hardly a concern.
But with some Edinburgh Fringe venues already under pressure for offering “sweatshop” wages (with complete impunity it seems) we need to be more careful than ever not to develop a reputation we don’t want.
Edinburgh is and must remain synonymous with the ideal of a city opening its doors to welcome visitors into its homes with a spirit of generosity and internationalism.
It’s unfortunate that for some visitors their experience and impression of the city can be tainted by the naked opportunism of those who have the good fortune to own a few properties.
Jim Orr is a former city councillor