What’s the future for Edinburgh’s many Festivals?

The Grassmarket Resident Association (GRASS) gave very helpful feedback about the big festivals, to The Cockburn Association recently. We are thankful to GRASS for allowing us publish their response here.

 

GRASS (the Grassmarket Residents’ Association) is writing to give you our input into the above request for feedback.

Morvern Cunningham’s rallying call Build Back Better, some but not all of which we as residents would support, brings it home to us the sheer number of interests, from hotel operators to arts creatives, who are involved in the Festivals. This makes it a difficult juggling act to plan ahead but those who live in the city centre should be central to any future plans. One message seems to be increasingly a unifying theme – we simply cannot go on in the 2019 model. One headline ought to be seen as a negative in future: ‘Fringe has record year in terms of the number of shows and audiences’. There must be an end to target driven measures of success both inside the Council and the Festivals.

We have limited our comments on a number of grounds:

  1. We have excluded the smaller festivals such as the Science Festival and the Film Festival which have little impact locally.
  2. We have confined our comments as to how the summer Festivals impact on our locality as residents. As individuals, members of the community include both avid Festival goers and those who are not interested in or can afford to attend any events.
  3. We have not included wider arguments surrounding over-tourism in the Old Town and the commercialisation of public space in general, as our views and the views of the Old Town community are well known already.

Specifically in relation to the summer festivals we as Old Town residents should like to make the following points.

  1. No Festival organiser in the half century that I have lived here has made any attempt to consult the community at planning stage. GRASS initiated a conversation with the Director of the Tattoo some years ago but, although we found him friendly, he was totally unwilling to change any element of the Tattoo programme. He also saw no need or to deal with issues like the late running of the late night Saturday night show which means that many residents cannot retire for the night until after 12.30 am.
  2. Over the years more and more experiences are added to summer entertainment programmes, like the RAF flypast during the Tattoo and the pop concerts on the Castle Esplanade in July but nothing is ever taken away. In terms of disruption, the Summer Festivals increasingly merge with the Christmas markets which, wider issues relating to East and West Princes Street Gardens aside, results in the gate in King’s Stables Road being increasingly locked. This is an inconvenience to residents of the west end of the Old Town who use the route through the Gardens to access Princes Street.
  3. The traffic arrangements in 2019 were shambolic with the rerouting of vital bus services and random street closures. What with the build-up of traffic, the creation of cycle priority zones and street closures, the muddle is continuing in 2020 with the sometimes conflicting aspirations of Spaces for People and the Transformation project leaving residents unclear as to what are temporary and permanent changes. There are particular problems for residents who need car access because of work or disability. The Council does not appear to accept that the needs of walkers can be very different from that of cyclists. There are also practical considerations such as that getting to the Mound from the Grassmarket adds £2 to a taxi fare because of road closures.Delivery companies have blacklisted certain streets because of the difficulties of access.
  4. When the Festival was launched in 1947, Edinburgh was not a tourist city whereas now the Summer Festivals clash with the height of the tourist season. This adds considerably to the stresses experienced throughout the Old Town.
  5. Similarly the creative industries were almost unheard of as an economic sector when the Festival was first launched, whereas between 2011 and 2018 they have grown by over 30% in terms of employment alone. Many performers look to the Festival and in particular the Fringe to showcase their talent in the hope of being ‘discovered’. While we do not wish to see the Fringe lose its original ethos of anyone being welcome to perform, some measure of controlling numbers is urgently required rather than opening up residential public spaces to all-comers. When Victoria Street was closed to traffic last year, within days it simply became a new space for Fringe performers, especially those who were unofficial street artistes. When asked politely by nearby residents to move on, buskers can be offensively rude and intimidating. Despite efforts by residents, the police and the Council to ban busking using amplified music, this remains a problem especially in August. A radical solution would be to ban all amplified music in the Old Town from the Tattoo to individual pubs. It would make life a great deal less stressful for both residents and workers.
  6. We do not consider that pop concerts, which cause disruption not only to residents but also other Festival performances, should be part of any Festival offering. They attract a different audience which could easily be housed outside the city centre. The increase in the frequency of Silent Discos both during the day and in the evenings is marked in August and bears little relationship to a Festival experience. They are far from silent and a danger both to pedestrians and motorists as well as adding an additional disturbance to residents. The need for Festival venues other than theatres and concert halls to be crammed into the city centre has to be questioned at a time when demand is sufficiently high for events and any attendant economic benefits to localities to be spread more widely across the city. Controlling the use of venues may also be a way of reducing the impact of the Fringe on the city centre.
  7. We object to the growing use of fireworks on both their disruption to residents and their pet animals and on environmental grounds.
  8. Walking around and looking at the living city is the activity that tourists enjoy most. Meeting local people is part of that experience. Unless urgent action is taken, visitors to the Grassmarket area including Festival goers will no longer be able to enjoy that experience, as the last residents will have left and the few remaining non tourist businesses will have closed.
  9. In an era where personal wellbeing is increasingly recognised as being closely related to mental health, the Festivals add an additional level of stress to local residents trying to go about their everyday lives. While there is much to celebrate about the Festivals, not all residents may be in the mood for relentless Fun fun fun. It is simply that they have become too big, too commercial and too long in duration. Our conclusion is that the Festivals are no longer sustainable in their present form.

We give the last word to our local Councillor, Joanna Mowat who points out that ‘If something is right for residents, then tourists will come.’ We endorse her call for a charter for Edinburgh which has to include Festivals and major events ‘Preserving a living city centre must stand at the core of any future plans.’

We attach a copy of GRASS’s response to the latest consultation on the Edinburgh city plan 2030 as background context.

GRASS looks forward to the findings of the Cockburn Association on the complex issue of the future direction of the Edinburgh Festivals. It would be fair to say that local people have enjoyed the break from them this year although given our experience of the Grassmarket coming out of lockdown and there being no sign as yet to a definite end to the pandemic, there is little prospect of residents and visitors being able to socially distance given the crowds that flock to the Grassmarket each August.

We should like to thank you for the opportunity to comment on this important issue and should welcome the chance to comment on other initiatives that affect living in the city centre. We should like to thank you for taking a robust stance on several issues to date such as public and green space.

Chair GRASS
29/08/20

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