Whose Edinburgh is it anyway?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, January 8th 2020

Edinburgh has been feeling good about itself or – to be accurate – those who claim to speak for the city, its public agencies and business organisations have been feeling this about themselves and the city. They feel the city has had an unprecedented decade of growth, has bounced back from the crash and implosion of Fred Goodwin’s RBS, and that the future is rosy, of continued prosperity and good times.

Alongside this neverending mantra storm clouds and criticism have increasingly been becoming more vocal, most publicly connected to the recent controversies over the scale and management of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations, the Princes Street Christmas market and the Loony Dook at South Queensferry.

In each of these there are common threads which tie into a wider, damning picture of the state of the city. Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is presented as one long glorious street party in the picturesque surroundings of the city centre and backdrop of the castle. The reality of the annual event is that it has been getting bigger and bigger year on year, with the event ticketed, controlled and numbers limited due to demand.

Once run by Pete Irvine’s Unique Events, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay for the past three years has been organised by London-based company Underbelly led by Ed Bartlam and Charlie Wood. The most recent new year celebrations have seen concerns and issues about lack of care come to the fore in a way never seen before.

Underbelly organisers publicly stated that not only would residents in the city centre exclusion zone be limited in the number of tickets they could apply to for the party, but would actually be limited in the number of house guests they could have in their own homes. Not only were Underbelly daring to have the presumption to have a veto on the size of private parties, for this and applying for extra tickets, they were demanding a whole host of information from people which was seen as intrusive and none of their business.

This debacle followed continuing controversy over Princes Street Christmas market whereby for the second year running Underbelly ran a horse and coach through the appropriate planning procedures. In 2018 they ‘forgot’ to apply for a licence for the market from the council and were given one after the event, and in 2019 forgot to do so again, leading to numerous local people and businesses wondering about the preferential treatment for Underbelly.

Gathering discontent at Underbelly’s management of the Christmas market was also related to its growth in size and footprint; in 2019 for the first time it expanded onto the east side of Princes Street Gardens. Not only that Underbelly showed a significant lack of care of the site, uprooting historic benches and leaving them in public unprotected and unsecured.

To top all this came the Loony Dook in South Queensferry. This grassroots, feel good, free community-run event started in 1987, and was organised by and mostly for local people to mark each new year by an annual mass swim into the bracing waters of the Firth of Forth. This has subsequently become an ‘official’ event, badged as part of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay events, first run by Unique Events who charged £6 for a ticket and entry, which has doubled due to Underbelly and become £12.

It now has a cap on numbers, is sold out each year, dominated by tourist participants engaging as part of their Edinburgh Hogmanay experience with local people pushed out – and with the supposed charity angle seeing £1 out of the £12 going to the RNLI. The original organisers have stated their displeasure at this train of events, Underbelly and the local council.

These examples are part of a bigger picture which centres on who and what does Edinburgh represent, who is running the city and in whose interests decisions are being made, and what all this says about future developments. This is in essence a struggle for the heart and soul of the city, the values it champions and nurtures, and what the city stands for in 21st century Scotland. Beyond this it forms part of an even larger story – one which is being fought out globally – about what cities and places stand for in 21st century capitalism.

A recent piece in the ‘Financial Times’ by Edwin Heathcote put Edinburgh’s predicament in this global framework calling the erosion and war of attrition on public space in the city, ‘the new enclosure of the commons’ and made the powerful observation that: ‘A city is not a brand. And while we bemoan the pressure of mass tourism and the creeping privatisation of public space, we are complicit.’

George Kerevan, former SNP MP, was a key player in the 1980s in the council’s economic development plans, and commented on current events: ‘As head of economic development in the City Council that created Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, we did it for local people NOT as a way of contracting out the town for profit and excess tourism.’

Mike Small, of the ‘Citizen’ group who oppose the official corporatised version of the city is equally damning saying: ‘Edinburgh is now manifesting late-capitalism in action where the role of the city council is to administer the safe transfer of millions of tourists into the city by air and to contain the masses to the periphery.’

There is a palpable unease felt across the city not just in the political classes and left-wing critics who can be dismissed by city authorities. Rather it is being expressed and felt in everyday life and experiences of local people everywhere in the city – not just the city centre.

A friend of mine who has lived in Edinburgh for over twenty years commented that: ‘Edinburgh during Festival(s) time is making the city close to becoming unliveable with little credible articulation from either the Council or festival/fringe organisers on how the events truly benefit and connect with ordinary people who live in the city.’

People talk of bus journeys across the city that would used to take a couple of minutes, becoming half an hour to 45 minutes, due to the tourist volumes and their constant questions about the most basic information. Such experiences are of course part of a global story and of mass tourism for many in the world, but that shouldn’t make them any more excusable or tolerable.

Another local resident worn down by the seeming insensitivity of city authorities for anything but milking the cash cow put it thus: ‘The unthinking mantras of “it’s good for tourism therefore it’s good for the city” and “more equals better” are evidence of a lack of both creative thought processes and effort to imagine alternative realities that very much display a contempt for the real concerns of city residents.’

Yet still the growth model is validated, advocated and seen as the only option. Take the example of Fergus Linehan, Edinburgh International Festival director who said: ‘The idea that the city or the festivals have reached some kind of capacity is nonsense’, and went on to say ‘You can’t just stop. The notion that Edinburgh is full could be very deadening.’

In response to the Fair Fringe campaign – who advocate better working conditions and pay – hardly unreasonable or revolutionary – in the context of what we are continually told is the biggest and greatest arts festival in the world, those same authorities get very sensitive and angry. Shona McCarthy, head of the Edinburgh Fringe, claimed that the Fair Fringe campaign were vilifying producers and promoters as ‘evil megalomaniacs’ and that if their campaign succeeded it would threaten the future viability and even existence of the Fringe.

The Edinburgh controversies touch upon an unfamiliar debate in modern Scotland – the perils of conventional growth and development models and what are effectively trickle down economics and culture. Iain Docherty of Stirling University put it that the city is ‘dealing with problems with rapid growth, which are not the kinds of public policy that we are used to dealing with.’ But it is about what kind of growth and for whom, and what kind of success and who is benefiting and who is losing out.

In Edinburgh this begs questions about what are the limits of tourism, of who city development and growth is in the interests of, and of what kind of future this is predicated upon. It brings forth difficult questions – for a city of 518,000 people of what the maximum visitor numbers are – currently sitting at over four million people per year. The city has on a comparable matrix the fourth highest number of international tourists relative to local residents per head anywhere in the world, only surpassed by Miami, Florida (1,641), Las Vegas (993) and Dubai (588) – with Edinburgh on 445. That isn’t a league table position to be proud of.

What are the limits of the Fringe and other Festivals? What kind of culture is being promoted that is unique, distinctive and says something about us? What should be done about the erosion and commercialisation of public spaces and the reach of the tourist city into every neighbourhood and street with ‘Airbnbs’ destroying the peace and tranquility of many people in their own homes?

Where, if any, is the strategy for the city from the council and public agencies that is thinking about these priorities and engaging and reflecting local concerns? There are council leaders and officials will reply numerous official documents proclaiming the official future of endless growth and the good times continue, but that underlines the problem. There are also politics in this: the SNP have been running the city since 2017 as the largest party under the leadership of Adam McVey in coalition with Labour, and have understandably being finding their feet.

Edinburgh has a wider relevance to Scotland – as well as being part of a global story. The city’s experience points to a picture of what could happen in the future to the global corporate winners in the city and country. There is a telling absence of any genuine strategy and vision at the heart of Edinburgh, beyond the allure and false promise of linear optimism: the conceit that tomorrow can and should just be a better and bigger version of today.

This has relevance to the debate on Scotland’s future on two levels. First, promoting an unsustainable, anti-social, pro-corporate global capitalism based on the interests and priorities of financialisation. Second, having a relevance to the content, outcome and relevance of the independence debate.

Independence would be a major boost to connected, insider class Edinburgh – to the corporates, business groups, lawyers and lobbyists. It would contribute to Edinburgh’s global footprint, its sense of international standing and power and prestige within Scotland. The city would become the capital city of a self-governing nation. None of this for now seems to be being taken into account anywhere by the Edinburgh authorities, business or Scottish Government, but it has to be discussed and considered now and acted upon, as one possible future scenario among many.

The trajectory of Edinburgh affects and has implications for all of Scotland – from its relationship with all of its citizens, to how Glasgow and Edinburgh relate to each other, West and East dynamics, Central Belt versus the rest of Scotland considerations, how we understand growth, what kind of culture and tourism we want to choose to promote, and how to champion a sustainable version of the future. The recent furors with Underbelly are emblematic of a wider malaise, and while this events organisation have engaged in shoddy, indefensible practices, they are only symptomatic of a city losing sight of what really matters.

Edinburgh is a warning that unless we control them the rapacious, capricious forces of corporate capitalism will sweep all before them and destroy those very fragile, precious qualities that have in the past made Edinburgh unique and a beacon of humanity and enlightenment.