Capping number of events in Princes Street Gardens ruled out by council chiefs
Donald Wilson, the council’s culture chief, has warned of a “steady and unstoppable” decline for the city’s global reputation if it started to turn away promoters and organisers.
Mr Wilson, who was speaking days before an international fundraising campaign to help pay for an overhaul of the gardens gets underway in New York, said imposing a “cap or upper limit” on what the gardens could be used for would sent out the wrong message.
He said it was “absolutely vital” that the planned creation of a new amphitheatre for open-air concerts to replace the existing run-down Ross Bandstand went ahead.
In recent years the council has insisted that no more than five large-scale events which close off the gardens are allowed to go ahead, including the Edinburgh International’s fireworks concert and the Hogmanay festivities.
However the rule was relaxed in 2018 to allow promoters to stage a series of “Summer Sessions” concerts. Nine of them went ahead this year, including shows by Lewis Capaldi, Primal Scream. Chvrches and Madness.
Heritage campaigners, community groups and environmentalists have been demanding a clampdown on the “commercialisation” of the gardens ahead of plans being submitted for a new £25 million arena in West Princes Street Gardens within the next few months.
Alan Cumming and KT Tunstall have agreed to perform at the $150-a-head event at the Lincoln Center in New York to kickstart the fundraising campaign for The Quaich Project, which the council is pursuing with the Ross Development Trust, which was set up by hotel developer Norman Springford to try to revive the use of the gardens.
There have also been concerns about the impact of winter festival events on East Princes Street Gardens, which are traditionally home to fairground rides, bars and market stalls for six weeks each year.
Cllr Wilson, who has responsibility for the staging of events in both gardens and the planned redevelopment, said the economic benefits generated by the city’s festivals and events were not fully understood by the public.
Mr Wilson said: “It’s vitally important that the city is seen as being open for business and that people get a welcome to Edinburgh.
“Some people are of the belief that you can cap or put an upper limit on certain things. As soon as you put out that kind of message you risk starting a decline. One-off things start a drift.
“If we start saying we are not open and are not interested in events it will begin a steady and unstoppable decline in terms of the festivals and events in the city, and our international reputation. The economic benefit of events is vital to the city. People under-estimate that.
“One good thing about the challenging of the value of festivals and events is that it makes people think about why we have them, and their purpose and benefit. There are many opinions concerts in the gardens and I know they are not to everyone’s taste, but they are to others. They are very popular and we have to take account of that.
“The use of the gardens hasn’t changed and I’m not envisaging it changing in the future. There has been talk of privatisation or selling off the gardens. That is absolutely not the case. They will remain 100 per cent under the ownership of the gardens and we will be controlling and managing them.”
He said he was in favour of community events being staged in the park every week as part of a strategy to “widen and deepen festival and event participation.” He also cited the 18th century origins of the “pleasure grounds” as a justification for them to be used regularly for events.
He added: “I’m sure a lot of people are unaware that could have their own event in the gardens.
“We have a very strong desire in the council to widen and deepen festival and event participation and support beyond the major festivals.
“But with events that are large-scale and ticketed, for the people that go to them it is a community actvity. That has to be factored on. A lot of these events are sell-outs. Decisions we make have to be based on the facts.”
Mr Wilson spoke out days after organisers of Edinburgh’s world-famous Hogmanay celebrations warned that the event’s future wold be put at risk if a clampdown is ordered on the “commercialisation” of Princes Street Gardens over the winter.
Underbelly, which has an £800,000 annual contract to produce the two events, say the scale and quality of three-day Hogmanay festival is now reliant on income generated from market stalls, bars and fairground rides.
Mr Wilson said: “The consultation is about what people want from the Christmas and Hogmamay events. “It’s coming up to the end of the current contract so it seems like the right time to ask people.
“That doesn’t mean to say that we’re in any way negative about what happens now. Some people have issues with what we’re doing just now and others love it.”