Edinburgh’s biggest Fringe venues seek up to £14m from public purse to bounce back

The biggest venue operators at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe are seeking a public funding bail-out of up to £14 million to secure the future of the event.

Saturday, 8th May 2021, 7:00 am
Updated Monday, 10th May 2021, 3:19 pm
George Square Garden is one of the most populations destinations for Fringe-goers.

A newly-formed alliance wants the UK and Scottish Governments and the city council to step in to ensure they get back on their feet ahead of the event’s 75th anniversary in 2022.

The venues claim the two-year funding deal is needed to “bring the festival back to health” following its cancellation in the face of the pandemic in 2020 and ongoing uncertainty about what will be allowed to go ahead in Edinburgh this summer.

The Fringe’s “big four” venues – Assembly, Gilded Balloon, Pleasance and Underbelly – have joined forces with Summerhall, The Stand, the Traverse Theatre, DanceBase, Just the Tonic and Zoo to lobby for financial help.

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Underbelly's site in George Square Gardens. Picture: Ian Georgeson

The Fringe alliance is seeking the urgent relaxation of planned two metre social distancing restrictions, which all venues have been told they must enforce this August.

Although the UK Government has set a provisional date of 21 June for restrictions to be completely lifted in England, the Scottish Government is thought to have warned venue operators they may have to wait at least six months for the same to happen north of the border.

The venue say they do not “underestimate the size of the financial demand,” but insist that the extra funding would provide a crucial lifeline for artists who have been left “devastated” by the pandemic.

Several proposals for financial help, including the creation of new outdoor venues for Fringe shows this summer, are thought to have been put forward, with price tags between £5m and £14 million.

However it is understood that around £1.5m in additional financial support is currently being discussed with the venues, who have pointed out that they put on more than 30,000 performances and generated more than £24 million in box office takings at the 2019 Fringe. The new backing would be in addition to the £479,000 secured by the Fringe Society, which oversees the running of the festival, to help the event to go ahead in some form this year.

The 10-strong group, which has been responsible for around 80 per cent of ticket sales in recent years, is warning that long-standing venues could “sink without a trace” without direct funding support this year and next.

They insist the event will be impossible to stage without financial support if the two metre rule remains in place and hope to at least be treated on the same basis as Scottish bars and restaurants, which can open with one metre distancing.

A dossier compiled by the venues states: “Any August 2021 event cannot cover its costs, let alone generate surplus, under the current two metre social distancing requirements, and to ensure they can retain staff and freelancers with years of accrued knowledge and experience from leaving the industry forever, there is a need for significant financial support.

“Producing venues who receive no funding rely on each year’s successes to roll into the next.

"As is well known, artists take calculated financial risk to attend the Fringe and without the overarching supporting income streams - busy bars and sponsorship deals reliant on footfall - the risk on the artists also becomes untenable.

"With real investment into these producing venues this summer, not only can a small safe event take place in August of this year, but a festival can be built for 2022 with artists at the centre and expertise retained across the festival eco-system.

“Together, this working group believe that a multi-million pound investment is required from government to stabilise and to regenerate the festival.

“This investment would ensure that experience is not lost, artists can be programmed at less risk for performers and producers, and staff job security would return as furlough ends.”

The dossier warns that it is likely to take “many years” for the Fringe to get back to its previous scale, calibre and international reputation.

It adds: “The venues do not underestimate the size of the financial demand, but placed in comparison to the £1.5 billion made available from the UK Government for funded and commercial organisations, and as a return on investment, this would represent incredibly good value.

"Significant funding for producers and curating venues also represents a lifeline for so many artists who have also seen their work devastated due to the lockdowns across the UK and around the world.”

Assembly founder William Burdett-Coutts said: “We’ve indicated that to deliver a reasonable festival this year we thought it would need between £5m and £7m.

"What’s in discussion at the moment is a potential £1m from the Scottish Government and £500,000 from the council, but none of that has been agreed yet.

“It’s all incredibly late and incredibly small given the scale of what we do. It’s going to be very tough to deliver a reasonable event this year.

"There seems to be an obsession with the two metre rule. The whole thing is just absurd. We can build our site at George Square Garden and run it with one metre social distancing if we don’t put in a stage, but as soon as we do we have to have two metre social distancing. Yet West End theatres are planning to open without social distancing,”

One source involved in the negotiations with the Scottish Government said: “In London, festivals and venues are currently able to plan to go ahead without social distancing. In Edinburgh, no-one is able to plan anything at the moment. It is literally a tale of two cities.”

A spokeswoman for the Fringe Society said: “Registration opened on 05 May and will remain open with no hard deadlines through until the end of the festival, so Fringe venues and artists remain in vital planning mode at the moment.

“We’re looking forward to the Scottish Government providing further social distancing guidance, allowing operators to undertake plans safely and viably this summer.”

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