Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Future of venue operator ‘at risk’ over UK City of Culture collapse

One of the biggest companies involved in Edinburgh’s festivals has been thrown into turmoil after it was left nearly £1.5 million out of pocket by the financial collapse of the organisers of Coventry's UK City of Culture celebration.
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Assembly, the longest-running venue operator at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, says its future has been put at risk after the Coventry City of Culture Trust went into administration. Assembly, which operates a year-round venue in Edinburgh, was brought in to help run the city’s Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations last year.

The company has urged Coventry City Council to settle the debt claiming its “entire future”, threatening legal action that it says “will leave the council with an event bigger debt”.

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Assembly founder William Burdett-Coutts, who also wants the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to intervene, said his company had only narrowly avoided going into immediate administration itself.

Assembly is one of the biggest venue operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: William Burdett-CouttsAssembly is one of the biggest venue operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: William Burdett-Coutts
Assembly is one of the biggest venue operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Picture: William Burdett-Coutts

The firm wants the local authority to take responsibility “from both a moral and legal point of view” because of the economic impact the title has generated for Coventry – estimated at more than £172 million – and the fact the council led the bidding process.

Assembly was brought in to run a “festival garden” in both 2021 and 2022 as part of an official programme of events. More than 140,000 tickets were sold, while the site attracted half a million visitors.

Coventry’s culture trust was created to ensure a long-time legacy from its programme of events. However, financial concerns began to emerge in October when the council was asked to provide a £1m bail-out loan.

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The trust revealed it was seeking insolvency advice last month and administrators were called in last week, with the loss of 50 jobs.

In a letter to Coventry City Council, seen by The Scotsman, Mr Burdett-Coutts said: “We worked for nearly two years on delivering the Assembly Festival Garden, the centrepiece of the year, for the people of Coventry.

"Assembly Festival is a small organisation and this level of debt prejudices our entire future. Our company works with most of the major festivals and theatres in the world and presents over 200 shows as part of the Edinburgh festivals, delivering some 20 per cent of the Fringe. To put us in context, our Edinburgh audience is larger than Wimbledon, Glastonbury or the Proms.

“From both a moral and legal point of view, the council should take responsibility for this. What we did was of great benefit to the city. Our position should be of concern to you.”

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Assembly joined forces with Unique Events last year for a successful bid to run Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations. Their consortium was later brought in to take on the city’s Christmas festival when a German company pulled the plug on its council contract.

Mr Burdett-Coutts told The Scotsman: “We actually could have gone into administration, but thankfully our bank has come in and effectively given us an extended overdraft, which has given us time to chase the money we are owed. But the clock is ticking and we're under pressure to get this sorted out.

"I’m trying to get someone in Coventry or the DCMS to take responsibility for what has gone on over what was the centrepiece of the City of Culture programme.”

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