Edinburgh Council to investigate moving Christmas market out of Princes Street Gardens in 2020

Edinburgh City Council will draw up options that could include moving a contentious Christmas market out of Princes Street Gardens after councillors grilled Underbelly bosses in a fiery exchange.

Tuesday, 12th November 2019, 5:52 pm

Councillors have agreed to investigate potentially moving a controversial Christmas market out of Princes Street Gardens in 2020 – as the company behind the event was accused of “treating this city with contempt”.

Underbelly’s Christmas market will open in Princes Street Gardens on Saturday – but has been subject to a backlash by councillors and residents on social media, with no planning permission in place and the council launching an internal investigation into whether the correct processes were followed in handing over a two-year contract extension.

'They have been treating the city with contempt'

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Underbelly's scaffolding structure that has been built in Princes Street Gardens for the Christmas market
Underbelly's scaffolding structure that has been built in Princes Street Gardens for the Christmas market

Edinburgh City Council’s culture and communities committee considered a motion by Green Cllr Alex Staniforth – calling to “urgently collaborate” with Underbelly and “to look at options” for relocating this year’s event to hard-standing location in central Edinburgh. But councillors instead agreed a Conservative amendment, which will require officials to draw up options for next year’s event, which could include moving the event out of Princes Street Gardens.

Earlier, Underbelly’s directors Charlie Wood and Ed Bartlam were grilled by councillors after giving a presentation on last year’s event – which attracted 900,000 unique visitors. Mr Bartlam moved to reassure councillors that the company is “acutely aware” of this year’s controversy and will reflect on the issues “in detail”.

He told councillors that his company’s flagship Hogmanay events have produced a loss of £322,000 over the last two years – but was unable to say how much surplus the Christmas market brings in after being quizzed by Conservative Cllr Phil Doggart.

Mr Wood added: “I wish the process to how Edinburgh’s Christmas operates successfully in these gardens had started years ago – rather than essentially starting in March this year. I think it’s a great regret that has happened.”

The company expects to receive a building warrant for the scaffolding structure by the end of the week, but did not point to a specific contingency plan if this was not the case, other than “we will have to make changes”.

In tabling his motion to potentially haul this year’s event out of the gardens, Cllr Staniforth said “we will not put up with this behaviour” from Underbelly.

He added: “We should send a hard message to Underbelly that frankly they have been treating this city with contempt.”

But Conservatives put forward a compromise, agreed by the committee, pointing to the “practical impossibility of obtaining a replacement venue at this late stage”. An investigation will take place into options for potentially finding an alternative venue, reviewing the scale of the event and ensuring all permissions are in place ahead of time.

Cllr Doggart said: “We are where we are – we are not going to stop it, no matter what you think because of the realities we are in.

“I’m not prepared to be played as a fool by Underbelly and anyone else. We didn’t get responses this morning – it was evasion. The people of this city deserve better than that.”

'Root and Branch Review'

The council will ask the public for the first time about how the city celebrates Christmas and Hogmanay in a full winter festivals consultation.

Culture and communities convener, Cllr Donald Wilson said: “We will have a root and branch review of what Edinburgh people want in terms of Christmas and Hogmanay. We need to give people options and let people know what’s possible.

“We are long past the time of asking the citizens of Edinburgh what they want by a winter festival. There’s a clear view that we need to take a close look at what we do going forward – it was our demand that that be the case.”

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