Edinburgh Festival Fringe: Questions are stacking up for Fringe Society over UK Government-funded HQ – Brian Ferguson

The strange case of the new multi-million-pound headquarters for the world’s biggest arts festival is a mystery worthy of its finest theatres.
Crowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)Crowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)
Crowds throng the Royal Mile during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Multiple riddles are still to be unravelled following last week’s Spring Budget announcement, not least what it means for the future of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and the charity overseeing the event. The festival’s multi-million-pound windfall may be the equivalent of winning the lottery for a Scottish arts organisation. But is this a case of watch what you wish for?

The prospect of £7 million being spent on a signature building project has thrown up a whole host of questions ahead of yet another challenging-looking summer for the festival. First, there is the understandable angst over why the Fringe Society is prioritising a new HQ when artists and companies have been warning for years about the need for more financial support to perform – and stay – in Edinburgh in August.

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The festival is likely to be spending a lot of time explaining how this public funding cannot be used for other purposes, including helping artists and companies meet the cost of accommodation, by far the number one issue facing Fringe participants in the near future. There are inevitable questions about how this funding deal has come about, and when and how the project was pitched to the UK Government by chief executive Shona McCarthy and her staff.

Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy.Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy.
Fringe Society chief executive Shona McCarthy.

Other key issues include what kind of development is being pursued, where the preferred site is, what will be happening there, who the society is working in partnership with and what the overall cost will be. None of this changes the fact that the society has been publicly championing the headquarters project for nearly five years – albeit without any noticeable progress until now. It has been a key priority in the last two long-term blueprints for the event – the most recent one was published less than a year ago – and was one of seven aims in a £7.5m “Save the Fringe” campaign launched in 2021.

The fundraising page on the Fringe website is definitely in need of an update after the UK Government’s contribution pretty much achieved the target. In fact, the £310,000 tally on it has not changed since the campaign launched.

The political dimension to the UK Government’s support for the Fringe Society is, of course, one of the most intriguing elements of the HQ mystery. Bypassing the Scottish Government and going straight to Downing Street for support feels like a dangerous game for both the Fringe and the International Festival, which is thought to have secured £1.6m to help support appearances from “UK artists”.

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While there may be valid questions for the EIF on exactly where in the UK this funding will be going, the fact it is planning to spend its financial boost on programming is more than a bit awkward for the society, which insists its own support cannot be used for similar purposes. Some leading Fringe figures admitted to me privately that the £7m pledge from the Treasury was a huge win for the society and long-overdue government recognition for the event.

But my lingering impression is that the society has been used in a political game where it is not certain of emerging as a winner.

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