West Princes Street Gardens : business plan and consultation

A group of stakeholders gathered at The Apex Hotel, Waterloo Place on Wednesday 30th October 2019. In addition to ourselves, there were representatives from New Town and Broughton Community Council, Edinburgh Access Panel, Historic Environment Scotland, The Cockburn Association, Edinburgh World Heritage, City of Edinburgh Council, Essential Edinburgh Ltd and Playfair Scotland Ltd.

We were invited by The Quaich Project. Their CEO David Ellis welcomed us. “I think it will be worthwhile for you to see the Consultation questions before they go live to the public on Monday. We’ve taken some advice from our planning consultants. We’ve sought some independent advice from the Institute of Consultation [not the Institute of Consulting].”

The proposed format was that David would run through the 21 boards and he would ask us for feedback. This was our first opportunity to see and comment on draft questions. The questions were presented to us as a Powerpoint presentation. They are not available in hard-copy.

Text heavy and image light

Stakeholders’ fed back that the Boards were text heavy and we would have preferred a greater focus on images. A mixture of old and new photos would have been helpful too. These points were accepted.

We heard the consultation would be on-location at a number of Libraries. Stakeholders were keen for not all the events to be held in libraries. The Quaich Project had ruled out holding any of their events in shopping centres. They said this was because shopping centres would have been hugely expensive, the consultation would be restricted to vacant units, and The Quaich Project personnel would not be allowed to approach the public.

A number of Stakeholders raised concerns about the objectivity of the questions asked and how the results would be reported. We asked how independent third party objectivity would be built in to the consultation. David advised that The Quaich Project would be correlating the answers and analysing the data themselves. We heard there was no requirement for a third party to verify the responses from the public.

The City of Edinburgh Council was proposed as an independent third party, although stakeholders gave this a firm thumbs-down.

Stakeholders asked for information on the methodology that would be used to analyse and report the data. We advised on ways of handing over the raw data and The Quaich Project said that in principle, they are happy to supply the raw data to an independent third party. They confirmed that independent correlation is something they would look into.

“the value to you David, is that people will be unable to challenge your interpretation of the results.”

Issues of interpretation were next. Stakeholders pointed out there would be scope for interpreting the data in different ways, with varying emphasis here or differing nuances there. This part of the discussion was summarised by one of the Stakeholders as follows, “the value to you David, of getting third party objectivity right, is that people will be unable to challenge your interpretation of the results. If the responses are not independently verified then there will be much greater opportunity for challenging your conclusions”.

There were lots of comments on the proposed questions that would be included in the consultation. These ranged from why some questions were being asked at all, to changing the order of other questions.

There were repeated requests for the boards and questions to be much less wordy.

The business plan “will go into public domain” in mid-January

The issue of commercial events in West Princes Street Gardens was discussed at length. The City Council representative acknowledged there have been many events in gardens and that these have caused disruption.

We heard from a City of Edinburgh Council representative that the Ross Bandstand business plan and operational plan was going to the Culture and Communities Committee. These two documents “will go into public domain in mid-January.”

“… there are elements of disruption. There will still be some impact.”

The principle the City of Edinburgh Council is working to, “is 5 major events and we will do our best to define the thorny issue of what a major event is. We have periods when there is a major event where there are elements of disruption. There will still be some impact. The intention of the five major events would be to bring in a level of income that would cover the costs of running an expanded range of free community events in West Princes Street Gardens.”

The response from Stakeholders was that “people are less worried about the amphitheatre for community events than they are about the anticipated disruption and noise.

“ The metric must include elements of disruption.”

We continued “the metric cannot be the number of major events. The metric must be how many days a year, the Gardens will be closed-off. This must include elements of disruption.”

Events have been managed by the City Council in the past but with their track record, “people have lost confidence (in the City Council’s ability to manage events].”

The information going into the public domain in mid-January will include “high level estimates of income without getting into commercially sensitive figures.”

The money doesn’t need to come from paid-events. It could come from “an increase in Council Tax contributions.”

A Stakeholder summarised the views of many in the room. “We should know the amount of money that comes in, otherwise it’s very difficult to make a decision on the trade-off that’s being made.” It was proposed that as West Princes Street Gardens are for the use of all the City’s residents, that the money could for example, come instead from an increase in the Council Tax contributions. “That’s the trade-off the people of all Edinburgh really need to know.”

The Quaich Project was urged to “nail down the design and how its going to impact paths and entrances.” There were comments that the use of the Garden dictates the design while others said the design dictates the use of the Garden.

If the amphitheatre is “going to be designed for mega-events, then the public should be asked about that, whether they agree or they think the amphitheatre should be designed for smaller unamplified events.”

“Hand on heart, big events are absolutely core to the business plan.”

David responded “hand on heart, big events are absolutely core to the business plan. The reason why we are doing this is to make a run-down space into an amazing setting, a better place to be, and to introduce activities so that the experience will be uniquely spectacular. That’s why we’re doing it. We’re not doing it so we can have lots of paid-for events in July and August. We’re doing it because we would like to give every school a free day, to have their day in the park. It could be a performance, it could be nature talks and walks, we could be doing projects with the Gardeners, but at the moment we’re just limited by the space we have.”

This discussion highlighted an apparent no-mans land between the managers of the Gardens (City Council) and the developers (The Quaich Project).

“We’ve spent an hour on something that really isn’t central to the design but its significantly incidental to it. We’re designing a better multi-use space on the basis of certain activities. The details we will work through at a later stage. The principle of the design is based on business modelling for a flexible amphitheatre space for community activities and hosting major event.”

The Quaich Project confirmed they will not be submitting a planning application until after the business plan is published.

“Most discussions get dragged into the business case and events. We can’t influence that. Believe me, we are trying. It is us who feels the negativity for it.”

So who has the casting-vote?

The discussion moved on to who the decision-maker is.

“Who has the ultimate say on what happens in West Princes Street Gardens? Who has the casting-vote ?”

“The Culture and Communities Committee have the final say on the business plan and the overall project.”

“And who has the casting-vote ?”

“The convenor of the Culture and Communities Committee, Councillor Donald Wilson.”

“Can you tell us about the proposed capacity of the Ross Bandstand?. If the barrier is removed, how will occupancy levels be controlled?

“Discrete fencing may be introduced. The screening might not be on the Princes Street pavement. It could be around the auditorium inside the Gardens.”

The maximum occupancy levels would be 14,000.

The City of Edinburgh Council representative updated us on the maximum occupancy levels for events at West Princes Street Gardens and they are as follows :

14,000 : Hogmanay and Fireworks
6,000 : for major events concerts eg Summer Sessions
3,000 : other events
2,000 : seated events with temporary seating
1,000 : schools events with temporary seating

Discussions moved on to questions about the proposed Welcome Centre. Comments included :

– The addition of a question, asking if consultees are in overall supportive of the welcome centre and the specified uses.
– That the Welcome Centre could be a ‘poisoned chalice’ as it becomes a magnet for people to visit and this would not be compatible with creating a space of tranquillity in West Princes Street Gardens
– That it was renamed the ’Accessibility Hub’ or ‘Gateway’?
– That consultees given a range of options, from a range facilities in one central location, to having the facilities spread around the gardens?

The Quaich Project will be running a second consultation in February 2020. It will be in response to the findings of this consultation and following the Project’s proposals for taking these findings on board and reflecting them in the proposed designs.

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