Festival challenges are worth it for the buzz around the city – Councillor Donald Wilson

Edinburgh has a special buzz around it in August as it becomes a global stage for entertainment, comedy, performances, talks and so much more.

Wednesday, 31st July 2019, 6:00 am
Councillor Donald Wilson is convener of the culture and communities committee at Edinburgh City Council

Whilst I’m extremely proud of Edinburgh’s world-class status and our city’s ever-growing popularity, we of course must also recognise and address the pressure this success can put on our core services and on the people who live and work here. We have a responsibility to manage that impact while promoting the jobs and cultural opportunities August’s ­tourism provides.

For more than 70 years the festivals have had to evolve and the city has evolved with them. As the city’s ­culture convener, it is my role to ensure they can operate in an environment where they thrive. Over the last 12 months alone, council officers and elected members from across the political divide have collaborated to tackle many of the impacts the festivals and their tourism can bring.

For instance, we have seen the term ‘overtourism’ being mentioned more and more as well as criticism of Airbnbs, overcrowding in key locations and concerns that the needs of visitors are being put ahead of our residents.

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Edinburgh becomes a global stage for all kinds of performers in August. Picture: Getty

Various parts of the council are ­co-operating to address these concerns, working in partnership to deliver a new tourism strategy as well as continuing Edinburgh’s case for a tourist tax, which could raise an estimated £14.6m every year to reinvest in the city. Plans are also being developed to reduce the dominance of car traffic to make the city safer as well as seeking powers to control poorly managed short-term lets. Addressing such issues is yet another step in our festivals’ long evolution.

Of course, the festivals are not just for visitors and we’ve seen growth in their popularity locally. The results from our people’s survey shows that two-thirds of residents (66 per cent) attended a festival in Edinburgh in the last two years, with 72 per cent believing festivals make the Capital a better place to live. Last year figures released by the International Festival showed that around 53 per cent of their tickets were purchased by EH postcode holders, while the Fringe reported that more than a third of their attendees came from the city with a further 21 per cent of the audience members confirmed as Scottish – surely a robust indication of how appealing the festivals are to our citizens

I am very pleased to see that all of the festivals are continuing to embrace even better access for audiences. Each festival has specific community programmes aimed at improving engagement, participation and satisfaction levels and, at a collective level the council has, in partnership with Festivals and the Scottish Government, recently launched the PLACE programme. The programme has a specific community engagement strand which is in line with our aspirations to expand the reach of festival activity beyond the city centre and into our communities, bringing the benefits to as many people as possible.

In addition to the festivals the Summer Sessions return to West Princes Street Gardens for a second year and we look forward to welcoming music fans. Performing against one of the world’s iconic skylines means a lot to both the artists and their audiences.

Following feedback last year, we have ensured that the promoters have addressed the sightlines into the gardens whilst maintaining public safety and will also ensure that public access to the gardens on concert days is increased. The fact also remains that, at its current level of events and activities, the Gardens are open to the public for 98 per cent of the year with only 70 of the 4567 public access hours utilised for larger scale events.

Edinburgh’s festivals are the city’s gift to the world. When the International Festival began the Lord Provost of the time, Sir James Falconer, gave a request and a plea to all the people of Edinburgh to “welcome the world” to the Usher Hall and to the Festival and give everyone a memorable stay in this great city. That message remains just as relevant today. I heard an artist on the radio the other day describing coming to Edinburgh in August as amazing, full of energy, like some utopian future with all different cultures all happily getting on well with each other.

Edinburgh in August is truly unique and I’m glad it’s here again.

Councillor Donald Wilson is convener of the culture and communities committee at Edinburgh City Council.