Six Ways to Improve the Edinburgh Festival

How can anyone actually be against the festival? Criticising the Edinburgh Festival lays you open to the accusation that you are against “internationalism” (vaguely defined), against “being open for business” (code), or worse, against “culture” itself (gasps!).
So what does Citizen see as the actual problem, and what do we want to see change?
Joyce McMillan is quite right to situate the problem in the context of the wider set of problems that Edinburgh like other cities faces (“Don’t blame the festival for Edinburgh’s problems”).:
“The brute fact about Britain in 2019 is that it is a country in which local authorities are chronically underfunded, and therefore largely at the mercy of commercial developers and their allies in government, even when the activities of those developers are clearly damaging to the city’s people, and vocally rejected by them. In recent years, Edinburgh has endured project after project inflicted on its people without their approval, from the grotesque and still undefeated proposal to turn the Royal High School into a luxury hotel, to the huge and apparently endless building project at the St James Centre, designed to create yet another high-end shopping mall that could be anywhere, from Dallas to Dubai.”

She continues:

“It has experienced a massive tourist boom, and endured the soul-destroying experience of becoming one of the Airbnb capitals of the planet, with city centre tenements increasingly festooned with the key boxes that signal the driving out of permanent residents and communities. It has endured the abuse of much-loved public spaces to stage events for private profit. And worse, it has seen almost every attempt by citizens, councillors or MSPs to counter these developments either bought off, or blocked, or lobbied into uselessness, by vested interests which the authorities seem almost powerless to resist.”

All of which is astute and true.
But the problem begins when the diagnosis continues with the caveat that: “Beyond those specific problems, though, it is difficult not to feel – as Fringe director Shona McCarthy argued this week – that much of hostility directed against the August festivals is not really about the festivals at all, but about underlying issues”.

In this account the festival is not connected to, or an intrinsic part of these problems, it somehow lies above them. We are to believe that the people who market Edinburgh and make plans for the cities future do not take the festival phenomenon into account.

This seems incredible.
Hilariously SpotHost, one of a burgeoning group of companies supporting the Air BnB feeding frenzy now advertise “the heroes of hosting” on the basis of the awfulness of the festival. Their ad reads: “When the chaos of the festival arrives I know have the ability to just disappear”.
If we just assume that the movements and forces that McMillan describes are somehow natural occurrences rather than commercial and political choices we will forever be on the back-foot, forever nurturing impotent frustration. That’s why Citizen was established to create a response and to gather creative ideas about how to change things. So here are six things that are wrong with the festival model and some suggestions about how we change them:


Contributes significantly to over-tourism: cultural tourists are still tourists. In doing so it exacerbates and boosts the short-term letting problem that feeds the housing crisis, a shortage of affordable housing in the rental sector.
Solutions: first the Fringe could acknowledge this reality rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. Second it could introduce new metrics to measure success and set some ‘carrying capacity’ limit to visitor numbers. It could aim to have less not more shows, to improve quality and not just focus endlessly on quantity.

Despite the council’s own surveys which produce astonishing records of approval – this isn’t replicated in day to day life. There has been a growing feeling from local residents that the festival isn’t for them – and this isn’t just or primarily about ticket prices. Cultural alienation from the festival exists and the response should be to listen not just to shout people down.
Solutions: the festival should be moved to be in sync with Scottish school holidays. The festival could have new hubs in Granton, Niddrie, Craigmiller, Wester Hailes, and Pilton. There could be some acknowledgement of the issue by the council and the festivals and some effort to create feedback, forums or input instead of reflexive defensiveness. If there is to be a tourist tax it should be ring-fenced for local public benefit and Edinburgh citizens should have a vote on how its spent.
Citizen will be commissioning its own public polling.
The growth of festivalisation, both across the city in duration and new festivals (festivals are the answer to everything).  This year (as per last year) the Fringe is bigger than ever, this year featuring 3,841 shows, and twice as many performers as a decade ago.
This year is up 8% on last year’s tally – with the number of performances UP 5% to almost 60,000, compared to 31,000 in 2018.
It’s not just endless growth in terms of visitors, its the spread of the festival beyond its August time slot. Underbelly are to run a venue in Bristo Square from morning till late night, effectively extending the festival by a month.
Solutions: the festival could be limited to certain weeks and a moratorium on new festival and extensions agreed.

The commodification of public space is a growing problem that people resent. After a survey last year asking people how much people would tolerate events in Princes Street Gardens, the council responded by ignoring the clear response and instead initiating a series of low-quality, high-price concerts called the ‘Summer Fiesta’. 
Solutions: the council should reinforce and defend the right to access to streets and public land. The protection of public parks and common land as spaces which aren’t commercial spaces is a demand based on mental health as well as an environmental good.
The impression that a handful of companies benefit hugely from the festival is clear.
Solutions: the big four companies that run the Fringe venues should be asked to publish their accounts publicly. The council should cease handing out massive contracts to single companies (Underbelly) to run multiple events in the city.
If we’re in a climate emergency, then the idea of encouraging hundreds of thousands of people flying short-haul to Edinburgh is unsustainable.
Solutions: if the Fringe are genuinely concerned about this issue then they should encourage to develop some sustainability metrics to help better understand the impact of the festival. This could and should be a Scottish Government supported venture as part of a long-term strategy for the capital.

These are just some ideas, Citizen will be seeking ideas through consultation and feedback over the next year as part of the creation of the Manifesto of the City.
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