John McLellan: Conspiracy theories under Christmas tree

Preparation work for Edinburgh's Christmas attractions in Princes Street Gardens is well under way. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Preparation work for Edinburgh's Christmas attractions in Princes Street Gardens is well under way. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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Christmas on Princes Street 25 years ago was a sorry affair. Many readers will remember that, the Norwegian pine tree on The Mound apart, the extent of it was a few sad-looking lights on those concrete-based scaffolding triangles which disfigured the street all year round.

The miserable, grudging effort compared unfavourably with the dazzling bling of Glasgow’s George Square, a perfect symbol of the clichéd pantomime differences between the two cities. But now with the Ferris wheel, helter skelter, carousels and all the rest of it set against the Castle and Old Town skyline, it’s one of Europe’s most spectacular festive attractions.

According to promoter Underbelly’s annual report, Edinburgh’s Christmas last year was worth just over £39 million in economic output, a 40 per cent increase since the last measurement in 2010. More than four million visits were made in the event’s six weeks, two-thirds by locals, and when the whole Christmas caboodle opens for business a week tomorrow in mid-November it’s a fair guess the proportion of natives will be higher.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea – what Gluhwein, bratwurst and toy soldiers in the make-believe uniforms of long-forgotten German statelets have to do with Edinburgh is anyone’s guess – but it’s against a sense that the beautiful Gardens are being sacrificed to rampant commercialism that this week’s public dismay about the Christmas Market being built over the stumps of the 50 freshly felled trees must be set.

Cutting down the trees caused outcry anyway, but when the Christmas Market started to go up, it became a perfect combination of suspicion of the city council’s motives generally and a growing discontent about anything seen to pander to the tourism industry. Ah-ha . . . so the council got rid of the trees to let the Christmas Market expand?

However, Underbelly gets no benefit from the absence of the trees other than not having to erect stalls around the trunks and the market is no bigger than last year. This has not stopped the link being made and using it as a reason to question the attraction’s quality.

But the application to cut down the trees in East Princes Street Gardens was made by the National Galleries of Scotland, not the council, as part of their plan to expand the Weston Link and improve disabled access.

Councillors followed the officers’ recommendation to grant permission, on condition that 22 promised new trees are planted on completion of the building work. It still means a deficit of 28 in a place where the planning report recognised trees are “an important component of the ‘picturesque’ landscape setting for the galleries and the gardens”.

Even so, the report concluded that “some removal of trees in the gardens is desirable as some of the trees are over-mature and no longer provide the desired and intended setting”, begging the question: desirable for whom?

A re-run of the controversy over the plan to replace the Grassmarket trees in 2008, it adds to the ongoing row about the removal of the Wheatley elms around Meadowbank Stadium and speaks to a view that the council is failing to protect valued natural assets.

A hint of trouble to come was the view that removing the trees would be “moderately beneficial” – hardly the strongest justification for losing 28 trees altogether.

Given the Grassmarket furore ten years ago when the old trees were breaking up the pavement and the replacement plan was one-for-one, a rammy was on the cards.

Whatever my personal view, the Christmas Market and all its attractions are popular with both locals and visitors and make a vital contribution to the city’s economy. The National Gallery is a national asset which can’t stand still, but Princes Street Gardens is a national jewel too, and while I don’t go along with the conspiracy theory it’s unclear why so many trees had to go. But that’s subjective opinions for you.