Edinburgh Christmas Market: Christmas contractors asked for plans nine times before deal axed

The £5.5 million Christmas Market deal collapsed earlier in 2022

Edinburgh’s failed Christmas market operators were asked to submit their plans on nine separate occasions before their £5.5 million deal with the council was axed, it has emerged, as councillors called for an audit of the outsourcing process to avoid future contract chaos.

The fiasco, which almost culminated in the cancellation of the capital’s festive attractions this year, has sparked a debate around which procurement model the council should use when brining in outside companies to run large-scale events. Whilst some councillors believe there should be more room for negotiation of bids, others have called for serious consideration to be given to the local authority running the festival itself.

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A report detailing what went wrong with the agreement between the council and Angel Event Experience (AEE) went before the scrutiny committee on Tuesday (November 22). A timeline of events revealed programme and financial information and applications for planning permission and licensing – vital documentation required for the event to go ahead – was requested by officers nine times without success between an initial meeting held on July 26 and the contract being terminated two months later.

This year's Edinburgh Christmas Market gets underway on Friday.

‘The contract was undeliverable’

The report said: “On 22 September, AEEL advised the council that they were not able to fulfil the contract and on 26 September they advised that they wanted the council to release them from the contract for Edinburgh’s Christmas.”

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Councillors subsequently agreed to take on Unique Assembly, which is organising the city’s Hogmanay celebrations, to run market stalls and amusements in Princes Street Gardens and George Street as well. However, some members remain furious about being kept in the dark over the contract issues until the last minute, despite a promise by officers to keep political groups on the council updated throughout the process. Speaking at the scrutiny committee meeting, the SNP’s Marco Biagi said: “Surely it would make sense to provide that warning to elected members before you got to eight or nine requests that weren’t being answered.”

SNP group leader Adam McVey, who has previously claimed the council will lose up to £3m as a result of the contract collapse, said “substantive issues” were brought to the council’s leadership by the contractor but added that “no interest was given, it seems, in one of the most politically sensitive areas of the council”.

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Paul Lawrence, director of place for the council, said officers were “fixated on problem solving and addressing the issues that were being raised, until the point where we believed those issues could not be resolved”.

Kate Campbell, SNP, said: “Council officers were having weekly meetings asking for planning applications to be put in, planning applications were not being submitted which would have meant the contract was undeliverable. We were getting down to days until planning permissions would not be in place to deliver the contract and yet we’re being told that that had not been raised with senior councillors.”

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‘Tipping point’

Responding to a question from Labour councillor Lezley Marion Cameron about when officers decided urgent action was needed to find an alternative operator, Mr Lawrence said the eventual submission of planning applications which turned out to be invalid and incomplete on September 20 was “somewhat of a tipping point”.

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At an emergency meeting held in early October to salvage the Christmas market and confirm Unique Assembly as new contractors, he apologised for not keeping councillors in the loop,telling them it was a “very challenging” time for officers as they attempted to rescue the original deal.

Flaws in the council’s procurement system exposed by the open ‘single stage’ process used this year got councillors talking about how the festival should be run in future. The committee requested an audit of procurement services to take place next year. There was general support for the council having more opportunity to negotiate and scrutinise plans before deals are finalised. However, Labour’s Katrina Faccenda challenged why there is an “assumption in favour of outsourcing as being the best option”.

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She argued the council “can’t actually make informed decisions on what kind of procurement process should go on” until the feasibility of having a Christmas festival that is “Edinburgh run for Edinburgh people” is explored.

Mr Lawrence said there was “a substantial financial loss” the last time the local authority ran an event of the same scale without outsourcing. However, he said it could be an option to “do it ourselves” and bring the festival in house in years to come, adding: “My personal view is that’s the wrong model – but that’s something for members to discuss.”