Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Acts may be staying in schools, ships and empty shops under efforts to avert accommodation crisis

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Edinburgh Festival Fringe performers may be staying in schools, ships, empty shops, tents and yurts under efforts to avert the event’s growing accommodation crisis.

Organisers of the world’s biggest arts festival are calling on the Scottish Government and the city council to come up with an “Olympic-style” response to the issue of soaring costs for participants.

The Fringe Society has revealed talks over “creative accommodation solutions” have been held with landlords, land-owners, business organisations, universities and companies which supply infrastructure for major sporting events in a bid to head off a “perfect storm” this year.

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It wants public transport links improved and extended to make it easier for participants to stay outside the city and has also suggested “pop-up” villages for performers are created around Edinburgh to ensure the 76-year-old festival is as affordable as possible.

Ukrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Fringe. Picture: Lisa FergusonUkrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Fringe. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Ukrainian and Czech circus artists performed at the McEwan Hall during last year's Fringe. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

The society said it was seeking recognition from the Scottish Government and the council that the festival was “a globally important event that needs serious infrastructure and support”.

The ideas have emerged in an accommodation bulletin for potential participants issued weeks after the society urged festival goers and acts to consider staying outside the city centre to experience “the real Edinburgh” during the festival.

It has partly blamed the impact of “major world events”, including Brexit, the Covid pandemic and “an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers fleeing conflict and emergencies in Europe and elsewhere”, for what it describes as a “significant” rise in pressures on accommodation for artists, audiences, residents and the student population.

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Last month the society suggested the Fringe could shrink in size by a third due to the impact of new legislation aimed at a nationwide clampdown on the use of homes for “short-term letting”. Eight of the biggest venues have warned the Fringe will “wither away" unless there is a rethink over the new rules.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe celebrated its 75th annniversary last summer. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty ImagesThe Edinburgh Festival Fringe celebrated its 75th annniversary last summer. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
The Edinburgh Festival Fringe celebrated its 75th annniversary last summer. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The new accommodation bulletin states: “The availability and affordability of festival accommodation is not a new issue – it’s been a growing concern for many in the Fringe community – but in 2023 we have reached a perfect storm.

“In our post-festival research conducted last autumn, accommodation was the number one issue which artists identified as the main barrier to future participation.

“Visitors to Edinburgh are increasingly opting for cheaper accommodation in self-catering units and via online platforms, such as Airbnb. This has increased the competitiveness of the more affordable options for festival artists and workers. New legislation on short-term lets will further reduce both the affordability and availability of temporary accommodation.

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“We continue to lobby and advocate on behalf of artists for affordable and suitable accommodation. However, we ultimately don’t have any power or influence over charges set by landlords, short-term letting agents, self-catering organisations or other accommodation providers.

”Our accommodation portal is updated as rooms become available. We’re approaching everyone we can think of, within and outside of Edinburgh, to be part of it, including schools, colleges and universities. We’ve been working with partners across the city to explore creative accommodation solutions, including ships, tents, yurts and vacant shops.

"However, we’re unable to secure commitment on these plans until we can establish the full cost and feasibility for this summer. Rest assured, if any of these plans turn out to be viable, we’ll be shouting about it.”

A spokeswoman for the society said: “We’ve spoken to a number of organisations across a range of options, including all of the city's universities, the council, the Scottish Government, teams who run tented villages at major golfing events, Forth Ports, private student accommodation providers and management investment companies who own land across the city.

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“We’re also speaking to Essential Edinburgh about empty retail outlets in the city centre. We’ve been working relentlessly to bring the right stakeholders together to help. At this stage, our ask of the council and the Scottish Government is to recognise that accommodation as a problem is far beyond the remit of our small charity.

"We’re seeking recognition of the Fringe as a globally important event that needs serious infrastructure and support if it is to continue to be inclusive, affordable and welcoming to a diverse community of artists.”

The society has estimated the cost of creating a “pop-up style village” at between £500,000 and £750,000 to set up. However, the spokeswoman added: "The scale and cost of such an idea is likely unfeasible without significant investment.

“There are limited sites in the city for a ‘village’ of the required scale, and as such this would not likely resolve the issue within a single site. However, we recognise that a significant solution to the ongoing challenges does require an Olympic-style response, given the importance of the Fringe and our sister festivals to both the culture and economy of Edinburgh and Scotland.”

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Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy said: “With the first tickets now on sale, we recognise that time is of the essence if any creative solutions for accommodation are able to come to the market. Over the last few months, we’ve been exploring a whole range of ideas, focusing on those which are affordable for our artist community, and which have any potential to happen this summer.

"While these possibilities perhaps feel unlikely, we’re trying everything we can think of – and are always keen to hear ideas from the city’s businesses, residents and the Fringe community.”

Val Walker, culture convenor at the city council, said: “The Fringe is, of course, the world’s largest arts festival and that comes with exceptional demand for accommodation in August. The whole city needs to work in partnership to address issues like affordability and sustainable growth of the festivals.

“That’s not something the council alone has control over, but we remain committed to exploring options and welcome discussions on creative solutions with the Fringe Society as and when they bring them forward.”

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