Roddy Smith’s Christmas market defence doesn’t stack up – Kevin Buckle

The Christmas market’s critics might have their own agendas, but that doesn’t mean that they are wrong, writes Kevin Buckle

Saturday, 23rd November 2019, 6:00 am
Roddy Smith offered a robust defence of the Christmas market

Very hard not to comment on this week’s latest Christmas market revelations but when considering what would make this week’s column I realised that more than anything I wanted to comment on the commentators – and none were more important than Roddy Smith, the chief executive of Essential Edinburgh.

I was certainly interested to hear what Roddy had to say as when it comes to knowing the problems faced by city centre businesses nobody is better placed, and while it is true Essential Edinburgh represents many large concerns Roddy has always spoken very knowledgeably when we have discussed the proposed Old Town BID.

Roddy was certainly supportive of the Christmas market. “Without any doubt, Edinburgh’s Christmas celebrations play a huge role in driving our city centre economy at a fundamentally crucial time in the retail and leisure calendar. Last year’s figures released by Underbelly were testament to this. Over 900.000 visits to the city centre, over 770,000 tickets sold and just under 200,000 of these sold to EH postcodes. The vast majority of these people, irrespective of whether they are visitors or residents, also go on to shop, eat, drink or stay overnight, as well as visiting specific attractions.”

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However that last sentence nails part of the problem in any analysis. Lumping shopping, eating and drinking together with accommodation hides the massive issues faced by retail. Of course those who visit will stay somewhere and even those locals who visit will have a bite to eat so Roddy’s statement is certainly true but what it implies is that there are benefits to retailers and that is far less certain.

Even the food and drink that is consumed in many cases is bought from temporary traders rather than local businesses. It is a straightforward fact that those Christmas market stalls are not cheap so a huge amount of money is needed to be taken from the local economy if they are to cover their costs never mind make a profit. At the same time late-night opening by nearby shops attempting to coincide with the market’s busiest time was abandoned by many as simply not worth it. Jenners’ busiest area were their toilets!

I know of no detailed analysis that has been done to show what is gained and lost by city centre businesses during Edinburgh’s festivals. All we have are very general signs of economic benefit that could easily all be assigned to hotels and those others who provide accommodation. Even the most recent economic impact figures for the Christmas market are from 2017, which in these changing times was a long time ago.

Roddy’s other point that many of those most vocal in being against the Christmas market have a wider agenda is certainly true but that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong in this case. I often take a different view to many of those who have spoken against the market, but in this case both Edinburgh Council and Underbelly have crossed the line of what any reasonable person would call acceptable.

Soon we will know the result of the Old Town BID, rebranded Original Edibnburgh, which has been offered Roddy’s help and experience and it will be a huge blow in many ways if it fails but the Grassmarket BID was such a disaster and the Old Town businesses have suffered so much that I’m not hopeful.

The Old Town businesses bear the brunt of many of these pressure groups and it has to be hoped that all sides can find more common ground next year whether the Old Town BID is successful or not and the undoubted benefits of Christmas are spread more widely.