Kevin Buckle: Grassmarket could be a fantastic venue

Bandikadabra perform at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in the Grassmarket. Picture: Toby Williams
Bandikadabra perform at the Edinburgh Jazz Festival in the Grassmarket. Picture: Toby Williams
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On Thursday, Edinburgh council’s transport and environment committee considered a new ‘Public Spaces Protocol’ report. Years in the making, it attempted to address the issues that occur so often over the use of public spaces in Edinburgh.

The problems have been well documented and of course mentioned more than once in this column. Overcrowding in the core of the city centre is matched by deserted streets only a short distance away and I had always been led to believe the discussions were based on how to initially fan out these crowds to the wider city centre and then address how to encourage them even further onwards to Leith, Portobello and beyond!

At the top of the list for “where can we spread these crowds to?” has always been the Grassmarket. The pedestrianisation of the Grassmarket in 2009/2010 at a total cost of £7.5 million to create an “events space” caused great disruption to the businesses there and I always felt guilty Avalanche moved in after all the work was complete. The pay-off of course for those businesses was the extra footfall all these events would bring when the work was complete.

The council abandoned financial support for the idea almost straight away but the principle of the events space was still intact even if the council then blocked most of the ideas that were put forward. However eight long years later this new protocol has finally put to bed any notion that the Grassmarket will ever be considered as a regular events space, never mind a major “this cost millions of pounds so we’re going to use it” events space.

The protocol recommends “three low-impact, occasional council-supported activities such as Science Festival activities” per year and that a “maximum of two very short duration council-supported events that may involve noise or impact on amenity can be considered per year, such as touring or race events”.

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“Low-impact seasonal/festive activities may be consented in summer or winter,” it says, but the history of the Grassmarket is one of such things being refused. There is however good news for anybody wanting to add any “low-impact art installations or public art” or hold a “low-profile procession”. A low-impact (you will have spotted a theme there) high-quality, licensed market will also be fine.

What of course the council never does is consider how this “high quality” will be achieved. Sometimes I do wonder if there is some alternative Grassmarket that the council are referring to. From the report you would think that there were dozens of events each year and I’ve even heard councillors refer to the bustling Grassmarket which makes me wonder how often they actually visit.

One thing is for sure. The Grassmarket is a large space that could be a fantastic events area if allowed. The official capacity is 10,000 people. The footfall meanwhile has dramatically and consistently dropped month-on-month and year-on-year so when the report repeats a claim “that an area such as the Grassmarket is a small space which can sometimes feel like there is too much going on”, it is clear that all sense of reality has been lost.

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To be fair one relevant point is well made and hopefully recognised by the council. “Another participant noted that any economic benefit attributable to the re-distribution of the use of public space would not be felt evenly across all commercial sectors and the question was raised ‘for who is this principle an economic benefit?’ given that whilst food and drink retailers may gain from events, other retailers may suffer.”

This of course is something that I have pointed out repeatedly and while the council cannot affect how people want to spend their money, they could differentiate when it comes to rates between food and non-food businesses giving the latter a lower rate. Otherwise as has happened in the Grassmarket every empty shop will become a sandwich shop. It’s a 57-page report that covers all the high-demand public spaces so lots to think about for anybody interested in how Edinburgh’s wider city centre will develop, but to be honest while its conclusions are no surprise beyond the Grassmarket there is no hint that the council understands that far more needs to be done than simply requiring compliance with the protocol via their events forms.