War of words as Hogmanay organisers ditched for Underbelly

The organisers of Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations since their inception have hit out after losing the right to stage the world-famous festival.

Thursday, 23rd March 2017, 4:39 pm
Updated Saturday, 25th March 2017, 12:10 pm
Unique Events has been running Edinburgh's Hogmanay celebrations since 1993. Picture: TSPL

Unique Events, who created the event with the city council in 1993, have been stripped of the contract to produce the three-day festival days after it was named the nation’s best cultural event at VisitScotland’s Thistle Awards.

Fringe promoters Underbelly have been handed control of the event, which has been hit by a significant budget cut from the city council, for the next three years.

The news promoted an angry response from Unique, which said the council had prioritised commercial benefits over the quality and safety of the event, the future of which it says has been at risk.

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However Underbelly insisted it had “hugely ambitious” plans to expand and growth Edinburgh’s winter festivals over the next three years.

A statement from Unique said: “Despite winning on quality, programme and experience, Unique were unsuccessful due to the proposed pricing of the contract.

“We believe the almost 20 per cent reduction in council subsidy, (compared to cuts of around five per cent to other festival grants) coupled with dramatically increased event costs present a very real threat to the Hogmanay festival. We’re deeply concerned for the future of Hogmanay and believe it runs the risk of losing its international status.”

The rival firms joined forces four years ago to secure a £1.3 million deal to run the Christmas and Hogmanay festivals, with Underbelly in charge of the former. Under its stewardship, the Christmas festival has expanded into St Andrew Square and George Square, with the introduction of Fringe-style shows and the free “Street of Light” event.

The city council has decided to appoint just one firm to take charge of the two events, which will have an overall subsidy of just £813,000. The new deal will see Underbelly take responsibility for the costs of policing the Hogmanay celebrations for the 25th programme of festivities.

A statement from Underbelly directors Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood said: “We’ve hugely enjoyed helping to develop Edinburgh’s Christmas for the last four years and we couldn’t be more excited about the next three years.

“We’re honoured to be building on the extraordinary work and success of Unique Events since the start of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay.

“We look forward to announcing our plans for both events in due course.

“We can however confidently say that our plans for both events are exciting and hugely ambitious and will see an expansion and growth of Edinburgh’s winter festivals rather than any diminishing of them.”

A spokeswoman for the city council said it would not be responding to Unique’s criticism of the decision to award the contract to Underbelly.

Richard Lewis, the city council’s festivals and events champion, said: “Edinburgh’s winter festivals provide the city and Scotland with unrivalled promotion and shape the Capital’s reputation as a great place to live, work and visit.

“Last year, the combined economic impact of the events were estimated at £160 million, demonstrating the huge importance these events place on the success of Edinburgh’s winter economy.

“The appointment of these contracts is confirmation for the city that, despite the financial pressures facing the Council, these important events will continue to operate for the benefit of the people of Edinburgh and our many thousands of visitors. I’m sure Underbelly’s activities will build on the huge success of Edinburgh’s winter festivals to date.

“Along with council officers past and present, I wish to thank Unique Events for continuously providing the city and Scotland with Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations over two decades.”

The Hogmanay celebrations were instigated in 1993 after the success of an events programme held to coincide with the staging of a European summit in the city the previous year. In the run-up to the Millennium it was joined by a Christmas event, including an ice rink in Princes Street Gardens.

The cost of paying for the Hogmanay celebrations has been a growing headache ever since the cancellation of the street party in 2003-4, which did not have any insurance cover.

A shake-up the following year saw the introduction of a £2.50 administration charge for tickets. The cheapest “early bird” tickets cost £20 for the most recent street party.