Underbelly boss threatened cancellation of Edinburgh's Christmas Market three times and labelled council concerns 'cr*p'

Correspondence obtained by the Evening News lays bare the fraying relationship between Edinburgh City Council and Underbelly

Wednesday, 12th February 2020, 6:00 am
Updated Thursday, 13th February 2020, 1:01 pm

Underbelly’s director threatened to cancel Edinburgh’s Christmas Market and Hogmanay three times as tense negotiations over the so-called ‘space deck’ endangered the Capital’s festive celebrations.

Emails and letters obtained by the Evening News paint a picture of Edinburgh City Council and Underbelly facing significant internal and external pressure with relationships beginning to strain to “breaking point” as the scandal which rocked both organisations took hold.

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Emails obtained by the Evening News show tensions between Underbelly and the council

They also lay bare Underbelly’s concerns about the potential loss of their Hogmanay headliner Mark Ronson, the impact of National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) works on the events, and over environmental concerns highlighted by the council, with director Charlie Wood in one exchange describing them as “cr*p”.

Correspondence shows Mr Wood threatened the council with the cancellation of the Christmas Market and Hogmanay three times in 2019 in May, June and November last year, the last just ten days before the market was due to open.

In one response, one of Edinburgh City Council’s most powerful officials Paul Lawrence hit back, saying the council could not “be in that place” and that emails sent by Mr Wood “come across as threats”.

Underbelly still do not have planning permission for the Christmas Market and any application is unlikely to be determined until the Spring.

The scaffold structure of the Christmas Market beginning to take shape in October

The events company said they had been asking the council for clarification over the arrangements for the market being impacted by the NGS works for more than four years and that the emails were stating the reality of the situation if the council did not act.

It added the emails “simply laid down the financial, logistical and operational facts” which otherwise would have led to the cancellation of the events.

Mr Wood declined to comment further on the emails.

Edinburgh council’s vice convener for Culture and Communities, councillor Amy McNeese-Meechan, said the correspondence shows that the council’s main priority was public safety, but council leader Adam McVey declined to comment when asked by the Evening News.

Ed Bartlam (left) and Charlie Wood (right), directors of events company Underbelly

Tree impact concerns 'cr*p'

Ten days before the market was due to open in November, Mr Wood called on Mr Lawrence to “help” him deal with concerns raised by council officials over the impact of market stalls on trees in the gardens.

Council officials highlighted issues with the location of 13 stalls on the scaffold structure south of the Scott Monument.

In an email sent on November 6, one council events officer told Underbelly: “We are concerned about the impact of the structures which sit south of the Scott Monument and adjacent to the middle path.

Edinburgh City Council's executive director of place, Paul Lawrence

“It appears that if sheds are constructed on top of the platforms, that these could damage the trees. These are protected trees.”

In an email to Mr Lawrence, Mr Wood branded the issues raised by officers as “cr*p” and said Underbelly had “no option but to build them”.

He wrote: “The cr*p about stalls 77 to 89 which are nothing to do with the NGS works, nothing about the building warrant, which have been there every year since 2014 and have been on the site plan all year needs to be resolved.

“They were approved by you in June and October. We have no option but to build them.”

The email goes on to paint a clear picture of the pressure on Underbelly from external criticism after weeks of anger linked to the scaffold platform’s construction.

Mr Wood wrote: “Paul: Ed and I have spent the last couple of days in Edinburgh with the team to boost morale and to be absolutely candid with you, spirits are at rock bottom and many people (key people) are at breaking point.

“We urgently need the Council’s support or there is a real risk of no event and no Hogmanay.”

'The trouble is they come across as threats'

Tension between the two parties quickly escalated with Mr Lawrence stating that “we cannot have installations that impact upon the trees/natural environment”.

He added: “Any earlier permission of the council as landowner cannot be interpreted as tying the hand of the council as planning authority.

“Charlie, the morale of your team is as nothing compared to the pressure we as a council are under.

“I understand the wider implications you suggest. The trouble is they come across as threats. We cannot be in that place.”

Mr Wood replied: “I’m really not making threats and I’m sorry if that’s how it came across. That was not the intention at all.

“I simply want to give you the potential reality of the situation.”

Underbelly 'pushing itself to extremis'

Underbelly first put forward the suggestion there could be no Christmas Market in a letter sent to the council’s executive director of place on May 10 last year.

In the letter, which set out Underbelly’s conditions for running an expanded market to mitigate the effects of the overrunning work at the National Galleries of Scotland, Mr Wood describes the events company as “pushing itself to extremis”.

Responding to the council’s rejection of Underbelly’s initial plans, Mr Wood adds: “I hope you can therefore understand that the council’s proposal - extending Underbelly’s exposure to [redacted] - is neither affordable nor sustainable for us.

“We are consequently unable to deliver Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay under your proposal”.

The letter goes on to set out Underbelly’s conditions including a two year extension to their contract, stopping events on George Street and Festival Square, and the use of the south side of East Princes Street Gardens for the market, all later approved by council officials under delegated authority.

The decision was then approved by councillors at a Culture and Communities committee meeting on June 18.

Mark Ronson headliner fears

Despite the council’s agreement to those conditions and following days of extensive discussion between council officials and Underbelly’s head of production David Watson, Mr Wood intervened again in June.

Due to the council stalling over the specifics of the space deck and pushing for more details from Underbelly, Mr Wood threatened the cancellation of Edinubrgh’s Hogmanay and Christmas Market again due to the potential loss of pop star Mark Ronson as a headliner.

In an email dated June 5, Mr Wood stated Underbelly “can’t risk losing him” and that they could not agree terms with other artists for Hogmanay which was “putting the programme at significant risk”.

He added: “I know you know this but we simply don’t have this amount of time: we are at heads of terms stage with our headliner, and we have to go to contract on Monday or we will lose him. You know who he is and we can’t risk losing him

“Similarly, we have to confirm terms with the operators and traders for Christmas now or we will not be able to deliver.”

'Of course robust conversations have to take place'

A spokesman for Underbelly said the company had been asking the council for details of how the market would deal with the NGS works for four years.

They said: “The council eventually asked Underbelly to bring forward a scheme for 2019 in April of last year. The council did not approve this scheme until 12 October, less than a week before we were due to move on site.

“Of course robust conversations have to take place when dealing with matters such as these and our correspondence simply laid down the financial, logistical and operational facts of the festivals at a point in time when it was absolutely necessary to do so, otherwise, we would not have been able to produce the events.

“The outcome was the satisfactory resolution for both parties, and Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay went ahead and were hugely successful.”

Cllr McNeese-Mechan, Culture and Communities vice convener said: “As this correspondence makes clear, the Council’s main priority here is, and always has been, public safety and protecting our much-loved Gardens while still delivering the Christmas festivities enjoyed by so many of Edinburgh’s children and families.

“Our actions were designed to achieve a successful and safe event despite the challenging external pressures, as per the terms of the contract with the event organiser to deliver Winter Festivals."

Timeline of Winter Festivals

2016: National Galleries of Scotland submits plans for revamp of East Princes Street Gardens.

January 2019: Work starts in the gardens.

April 2019: National Galleries admits work will last until at least August.

April 29: Underbelly puts forward its plan for revised Christmas Market, including the scaffold structure.

May 3: Paul Lawrence rejects plans.

May 10: Letter from Charlie Wood sets out requirement for two-year extension. First threat of no Winter Festival.

May 31: Underbelly passes on the outline plan for the platform.

June 5: Second threat of no Winter Festival due to lack of council movement. Charlie Wood states pressure to sign Mark Ronson as headliner.

June 18: Motion to Culture and Communities Committee passed, approving extension of Underbelly’s contract for two more years.

July 22: Mark Ronson announced as headliner for Hogmanay.

October 2: New entrance to National Galleries opens.

October 18: Building of the structure for the market begins.

November 1: Building warrant and PAN received by council from Underbelly.

November 6: Email sent to Paul Lawrence by Charlie Wood branding council concerns “c***” and threatening the cancellation of the market for a third time.

November 16: Christmas Market opens to the public.

November 26: Public apology from council.