Edinburgh Christmas market bosses were not halted despite no planning permission due to 'public benefit' of event

An official council document has revealed that Underbelly was not told by council officers to stop building controversial scaffolding structures for its Christmas market event in Princes Street Gardens despite having no planning permission due to the "public benefit" of the event.

Thursday, 21st November 2019, 6:00 am
Edinburgh's Christmas market in East Princes Street Gardens

The company behind a controversial Christmas market was not told by council officials to stop building structures for the event despite having no planning permission due to its “public benefit”, an investigation has revealed.

Underbelly’s Christmas market opened in East Princes Street Gardens on Saturday – amid concerns raised about lack of planning permission and a contract for the enlarged event being approved by Edinburgh City Council in order for the company to recoup capital costs put up to build a scaffolding structure.

A report examining whether council processes were followed properly shows that officials approved Underbelly’s contract being extended by two years after the company threatened that the city’s Hogmanay celebrations were “being put in jeopardy”.

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The document, drawn up in response to a motion calling for an investigation by Conservative city centre Cllr Joanna Mowat, has confirmed that council officials broke rules by not consulting with city centre councillors about plans to extend the market onto the south side of the railway line.

The report highlights that Underbelly was not told by council officials to stop building the Christmas market without planning permission.

It says: “Given the importance of the event in terms of public benefit, officers did not consider it appropriate to instruct Underbelly not to proceed in the absence of planning permission.”

The council’s chief executive, Andrew Kerr, will now draw up how the authority’s governance of major events can be improved, after officials warned in their investigation that “there appears to be weaknesses in the council’s co-ordination” of the Christmas market.

Cllr Mowat said: “It’s clear that the scheme of delegation was breached over the extension into the south side of the gardens. The Christmas market may look great and be popular but it has to happen where people live. I think it’s very clear that that balance is not there at the moment.

“It appears we are not conforming to the process because of the commercial matters of a company we have a contract with – that’s uncomfortable. It seems to be that that responsibility has taken a precedent over other responsibilities. That balance seems to be wrong.”

The event initially came under fire after it was revealed that no planning permission has been granted for it, and cannot be approved at the earliest until the event is finished in January – while no planning application was event submitted last year, seemingly under the council’s radar. Underbelly has given no explanation for the lack of planning permission last year other than “we operated under the same conditions as applied for in the previous year.”

Green city centre Cllr Claire Miller said: “It is normal to consult with ward members and other relevant councillors before approving a contract, and I am still unclear why this didn’t take place at a far earlier point when the decision could still have been influenced. As an elected representative, I have been unable to influence this decision based on the views I am hearing from residents and this is unacceptable.

“I need to hear more before I will stop investigating the causes of this series of peculiar decisions. There are so many unanswered questions remaining and I won’t rest until it is all out in the open. “

During construction of the market, council officials insisted that “four huts and their supporting structures to be removed from the market” by Underbelly “to ensure that trees were protected”.

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