Edinburgh festivals seek 'joint capital city and national effort' for 2021 comeback amid 'world-leading' status fears

Edinburgh’s festivals are calling for a “joint capital city and national effort” to ensure they can return this year amid growing fears they face losing their “world-leading” status.
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Organisers of the city’s flagship cultural events are said to be facing “grave financial and operational challenges” due to huge uncertainty over what restrictions will be in place this summer, the risk of cancellation at short notice and the impact of two-metre social distancing if it has to be enforced on audiences.

They have told the Scottish Parliament that Edinburgh has to make up ground “urgently” in its planning for major events, which have been worth more than £360 million to the economy in recent years.

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Fears have been raised that, despite the vaccine roll-out, the city could end up with a “modest” cultural celebration that damages the city’s international global reputation unless event organisers are given more help.

The festivals have asked for “urgent consideration” by the Scottish Government and the city council of the conditions under which events would be allowed to return safely ahead of looming “critical decision dates” between March and May.

Funders and other stakeholders will also be asked to help meet the extra costs and financial risks of planning events. The festivals want public funding to be used to “underwrite” ticket sales to provide an additional “safety net.”

An official report for Holyrood reveals some event organisers may focus on new pop-up venues and promenade-style shows to minimise financial risk, reduce the need to manage large crowds and disperse festival activity around the city. Public parks, community centres and schools could be “reimagined” to host shows, it says.

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Umbrella body Festivals Edinburgh suggested some festivals were planning to hold “large-scale outdoor events that encompass innovative crowd management controls and rigorous safety systems”. However, under the current guidance for event organisers an initial capacity of just 200 is proposed if and when the current country-wide restrictions are lifted.

The Usher Hall is one of the main venues normally used for the Edinburgh International Festival.The Usher Hall is one of the main venues normally used for the Edinburgh International Festival.
The Usher Hall is one of the main venues normally used for the Edinburgh International Festival.

The Edinburgh International Festival (EIF) claims the “city’s pre-eminence in the panoply of international festivals will be at significant risk” unless the city’s re-emergence from pandemic restrictions can be ”comprehensively planned”.

The EIF says it faces a drop of up to 70 per cent on a normal festival’s box office if its planned programme goes ahead this year due to the impact of social distancing.

In a report for Holyrood’s culture committee, Festivals Edinburgh director Julia Amour said the festivals were facing “further financial hardship” in 2021 and beyond due to the reduced capacities they are expected to have to grapple with, a slump in sponsorship and increased costs to pay for new safety and hygiene measures.

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She said: "For Edinburgh with its reputation as a global festival hub for performing arts, this extended period out of operation poses additional risks when other parts of the world will have the ability to plan and restart sooner with staging the kind of extraordinary work for which we are renowned.

Tickets are currently on sale for this year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.Tickets are currently on sale for this year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Tickets are currently on sale for this year's Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

"There is ground to make up urgently to reassert and renew Edinburgh’s world-leading status as a festival city.

“We recommend that a joint capital city and national effort is needed to identify how a return for Scotland’s flagship festival city can be secured in 2021 to reconnect Scotland’s creative sector with wider markets and restart livelihoods.”

Ms Amour admitted the festivals would return to “a world shaken from its old habits”, which artists, residents and visitors displaying different levels of caution.

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She said: “Many will not want to return to how things were, particularly with regard to matters of environmental and social concern.”

Ms Amour added: "Despite positive progress on vaccines and testing, we cannot assume that normal behaviours and regulations will have returned in time for the 2021 season.

"We will need to work together as a sector to explore how events of all scales can be planned and staged.

"A shared priority for 2021 will be to work across festivals and partners on the development of a model of future operations for live events, which balances public health and audience psychological needs with business financial viability.”

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In a separate dossier for the parliament, the EIF said: “We are currently in the advanced stage of developing the programme for the 2021 edition of the festival.

“One risk for the EIF and other festivals, particularly those running over the summer of 2021, is the ongoing uncertainty around the timescales for lifting social distancing restrictions, and the concurrent need to commit to a programme that may – in the context of more rapid progress on the roll-out of vaccines – appear modest at the point of delivery.

“The next 12-24 months must be a transition towards recovery and the active participation of government, for example on clarity around the emerging phases of roll-out of a vaccine and associated changes to social distancing rules, is essential.

"Without such an approach, we may not be able to achieve the maximum safe audience sizes possible, leading to further reduced income and the loss of prominence for the EIF compared to international festivals in other nations.

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"Edinburgh’s pre-eminence in the panoply of international festivals will be at significant risk if our emergence from the restrictions of the pandemic cannot be comprehensively planned.”

Speaking at the culture committee, Scottish culture secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “Public health officials have been working with the events industry advisory group, which I helped to establish in October, to work out what will be possible.

"Major events, in particular, are heavily regulated with regard to security and what they do. Obviously, the issue for events in a pandemic is that people would be coming together.

"We are not at the point of being able to have the volume of people that you need to make events function, but we need to anticipate what will be required. We are working closely with them to share information and to think about what events are coming up and what we can anticipate.”

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