Study shows Fringe limits

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Royal Mile in August (Flickr:RutgerHoekstra)

I am asking Green members to consider selecting me a candidate for the City of Edinburgh Council elections next year. To help members (and voters next year) make up their mind, I will be sharing some thoughts and ideas for how we can make our city a better place to live. 

This week sees the start of the Edinburgh Fringe, now in its 59th year. Each year it gets attracts more and more shows and visitors, with greater impacts each time, impacts both positive and negative.

Much was made last week of a study that shows attendance at the 12 Edinburgh Festivals is bigger than the World Cup and second only to the Olympics. Inevitably, this was cited as a demonstration of the huge economic impact [1], with Andrew Burns jumping on the economic impact of the Fringe and other festivals to the city, the study showing the Festivals support over 6000 jobs and contribute around £280m.

The comparison, however, reveals how far Edinburgh is pushed to its limits during the its various Festival seasons, and August in particular. World Cups are played across whole countries (and sometimes more than one), in cities with a combined population of many tens of millions. This month’s Rio de Janiero Olynpics takes place in a city of 6m people. Edinburgh, by contrast, is home to around 500,000 people. Even accounting for the fact that the Edinburgh figure is likely to represent fewer unique visitors [2], the Fringe brings far more visitors proportionate to the size of the city. Cities as big as Rio and London struggle to cope, and you only need to look at the overcrowded streets and overflowing rubbish bins during August to see that Edinburgh does too.

Another thing that springs to mind when comparing the Edinburgh Festivals with events like the World Cup and Olympic games is the disparity in the level of investment, particularly infrastructure investment. Olympic host cities spend hundreds of millions on new transport lines and stations; street improvements and new venues that will continue to benefit residents and visitors in the future, even though the event is over in a few weeks and may not return for decades. With Festivals throughout the year, and every year without fail, there is a strong case for some of the proceeds from hosting the Festivals to be invested into improving the city for both residents and visitors.

I’d like to see, for example, a Festival Investment Fund that is endowed with a fixed proportion of the City’s increased income attributable to the Festivals. A 1% cut of £282m would provide almost £3m a year to fund improvements – such as pedestrianisation schemes; better environmental management and pavement widening – that will make Edinburgh a better place for Festivalgoers when they visit and for residents all year round.

I am not a Festival nay-sayer (I love the Fringe, having been involved as a bar worker; comedy reviewer and a comedian [of sorts]) and there is nothing wrong per se with the size it is now, but it needs to be managed and made sustainable, with the City Council and Fringe authorities signally failing to do this.

As well as better infrastructure investment, efforts need to be made to spread the Festivals over a larger area of the city. The Big Four venues cram an increasing number of events into the same, very small area of the centre of the city that is never going to get any bigger. At the same time, the further reaches of the city see very little extra footfall and thus little more benefit, despite there being many venues perfect for staging shows. There has been some success in helping Leith [3] get some benefit of the Festival, with Out of the Blue and the Forest Fringe staging some great events, but this needs to be something that isn’t left just to entrepreneurs like them, but driven by the City Council; the Fringe organisers and the main show promoters, and into all parts of the city.

The Fringe and other festivals has been a unique part of Edinburgh for almost six decades, and I hope they will be for many decades to come. But they won’t be unless we can make them sustainable through better investment and planning, so we can ensure that everyone benefits. The City Council needs to take a leading role in this and I hope Greens will be presenting ideas on how it can do this when we ask for residents’ votes next May.

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[1] Unsurprisingly, the same report is very sketchy on the environmental impact of the Festivals. Despite saying that “comprehensive collection and analysis of carbon emissions data is now taking place”, it doesn’t tell us the results of that. Given that it says “the 2010 BOP Impact Study assessed […] the […] negative impact of the greenhouse gases emitted by the Festivals”, I am suspicious as to why this either hasn’t been done for 2015, or has but the data not presented. The 2010 report calculated a figure of 1.34kg of CO2 equivalent per ticket sold [p7] but the 2015 report does give emissions data.

[2] Given the number of events and lower ticket prices, the Edinburgh figure is likely to represent fewer unique people than figures for World Cups and Olympic games. Another caveat to consider when comparing them is that the 4m figure is for all 12 Festivals, and not just those over the month of August, a month also being the timeframe for World Cups and Olympics games. Going off data here [p2], the number of visitors to the August festivals is likely to be closer to 3.5m.

[3] Fringe By The Sea in North Berwick also does a great job in bringing the Fringe to East Lothian.

 

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