Organisers of the city’s Christmas and New Year events have raised fears that the two events, which are worth more than £150 million to the economy, may have to be dramatically scaled back if the park is considered sacrosanct in future.
Underbelly, the company which has an £800,000 annual contract to produce the two events, say the scale and quality of three-day Hogmanay festival is now reliant on income generated from market stalls, bars and fairground rides which open in mid-November.
However this year’s Christmas festival will be missing two major elements from previous years after the firm confirmed the ice rink has been dropped after the loss of its most recent home in St Andrew Square.
A pop-up cabaret venue, which has been erected in Festival Square in recent years, will also be missing when the programme gets underway in mid-November.
Underbelly director Charlie Wood insisted cash generated from the use of the gardens had allowed Underbelly to maintain a £4 million budget for the Hogmanay festival despite the public funding for the event being cut from £1.6 million to £996,000 in the space of two years.
He revealed that Underbelly had ambitions to “maintain and grow” the scale and quality of the Hogmanay festival, despite insisting it had made a loss over the last two years.
Councillors agreed a £450,000 cut in the winter festivals budget when the new tender was put out to the events industry in 2017. Around £200,000 of this had previously been allocated to the Christmas festival, which the council insisted did not need a subsidy.
Defending Edinburgh against over-tourism?
Underbelly’s concerns have emerged after councillors ordered a review of the two events in response to concerns about their impact on the gardens and other public spaces.
The probe was announced months after the launch of a campaign to “defend” Edinburgh against over-tourism, the privatisation of public space and the impact of “festivalisation.”
Underbelly have been given a two-year extension on the current contract to ensure stability for the Christmas and Hogmanay events until the end of 2021, by which time the city council will have launched a new search for producers to take them on.
But Mr Wood said: “The city needs to decide whether it wants to sustain the current operating basis of the Christmas and Hogmanay events, and whether these highly popular events, which bring a lot of visitors into the city, and sell tickets to increasing numbers of local residents, should be allowed to continue.
“This is about whether people want Princes Street Gardens to be used for Edinburgh’s Christmas. If they don’t, that’s fine. We can move on and the city can move on. But there is no way these events are sustainable without the use of East Princes Street Gardens.
“If you don’t have East Princes Street Gardens, then you don’t have Edinburgh’s Christmas, and you don’t have Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. That’s the bottom line.”
Mr Wood insisted the Hogmanay festival was in “a very fortunate position” because income from the Christmas festival was able to be reinvested in the Hogmanay event.
He said: “We have maintained the budget for the Hogmanay festival at £4 million since we were appointed to run both events. We have done so on 38 per cent less funding from the council for the event.
“We’re very proud that we have managed to make the Christmas festival a very commercial event. It has essentially allowed the Hogmanay festival to be maintained at the same level, but at a substantially lower burden to the taxpayer. Surely that is a good thing?
“We really want to maintain and grow the artistic and creative excellence of Hogmanay as an iconic event for Edinburgh and Scotland. We want to continue to create unique images that go around the world, whether they are from the street party or the torchlight procession, from events that can only happen in Edinburgh.
“The Hogmanay festival is in a very fortunate position at the moment because of its relationship to the Christmas event, which is bringing hundreds of thousands of people to the city. Christmas is a commercial event. We are advocates of that. Commercialisation is not necessarily a bad word, if it is used correctly and if it is used to help support other events like Hogmanay.
“The Christmas event also supports the city. If you didn’t have one you wouldn’t have a busy city centre. That’s why most cities in Britain, and Europe, have Christmas celebrations.”
According to an official report on the two festivals, which is published today, 1.1 million people attending the two events, with 771,000 tickets sold during the six-week Christmas event and a further 88,000 sold during the three-day Hogmanay festival.
Under the current financial model for the two events, the council recouped more than £250,000 back from the Christmas festival. However Underbelly has refused to say how much income had been generated in total, citing commercial confidentiality.
Mr Wood added: “We are not being defensive about this. We want people to view Edinburgh’s Christmas on its own positive merits, but also see that its commercialisation helps support an event that was previously almost entirely funded by the taxpayer.
“People might have a view that we make Christmas commercial purely for the sake of Underbelly. That’s just not true. We actively use it for another event which doesn’t make a profit at all.”
“Arts organisations and festivals in the country are going to see less funding available and more pressure on the public purse.
“It’s not just our festivals that are going to have to get more commercial. Every festival is going to have to do so, otherwise where is the money going to come from to maintain them?”