Edinburgh’s winter festivals woes have come as no surprise – Brian Ferguson
It came as absolutely no surprise whatsoever to hear that a new era for Edinburgh’s winter festivals had run into trouble well before its first festive lights flicker into life.
The first rumblings of behind-the-scenes discontent were heard almost as soon as the city council announced the awarding of two separate multi-million-pound contracts to produce the Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations.
Growing concerns about the ability of the new Christmas organisers, German outfit Angels Event Experience, to deliver what had been promised in a £5.4 million, five-year deal came to a head last week when it emerged that it had withdrawn from the contract – less than two months before the event’s launch.
The plug was suddenly pulled just weeks after the company announced plans to expand Edinburgh’s Christmas markets into new areas in the Old and New Towns, as well as across Princes Street Gardens.
The council has turned to Unique Events – the local company which had just won back the city’s Hogmanay contract, worth £4 million over the next five years, and previously organised the Christmas festival – to attempt to rescue the latter event.
But Unique already had its own challenges as, unlike Underbelly, which had two winter festivals contracts, it was unable to use any income from the Christmas festival for the Hogmanay event, which it instigated and produced from 1993 until 2017.
Given that awarding the winter festivals contracts was one of the first major tasks for the new council in June, it is perhaps not surprising that only now are serious questions being asked about exactly what was agreed and what has gone wrong.
Angels has muddied the waters further by declaring that it is still planning to be involved this year “in a smaller capacity" and “will do everything in our power to make sure this year’s events are a success”.
But if this company is not going to be paying the council more than £1 million, what exactly will it be getting from the use of publicly owned assets – and what will happen to this income?
It is worth recalling that this year’s events were meant to represent a fresh start after a spate of recent controversies surrounding the Christmas festival in particular, including its impact on Princes Street Gardens, over-commercialisation of public spaces, the cost of rides and attractions, and overcrowding.
Exactly how these issues were going to be resolved when the event was envisaged as generating more than £1 million for the council has never been explained.
However the financing of both events has been highly problematic since 2013, when a £1.3 million subsidy ringfenced for both events was cut to just over £800,000 for Hogmanay and the Christmas festival was expected to run on a profitable basis.
Given that these festivals have been found to generate more than £150 million a year for the economy, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Edinburgh has tried to maintain them on the cheap.
If this strategy did not work for many in the city pre-pandemic, it has proved even less successful this year.
But given the huge value of these events to the city and its reputation, it is incumbent on all those embroiled in the current crisis to find a viable solution – and fast.