Who Owns Christmas?

In a bizarre press release Underbelly has issued a series of facts and data to try and justify their ongoing monopoly of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and “Christmas” which raises far more questions than it answers. Questions like: why should one company be allowed to dominate a whole cultural event? Why should the public subsidise a private company to make money? Who – and what – are these events actually for? and “What exactly is Underbelly?”

The media release goes as follows” ” PRESS RELEASE: Underbelly shares annual report on Scotland’s world-renowned Winter Festivals – Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay”.

In what feels very much like a slightly desperate defensive action Charlie Wood of Underbelly pleads that:

  • The combined contract for Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay saves the city £1million per year.
  • 183,857 people attended Edinburgh’s Hogmanay and there was a 3% rise in total attenders from Edinburgh.

As Citizen has repeatedly pointed out, the metric of eternal growth of numbers of visitors is a bizarre one, but these people can’t help themselves, so we are left to celebrate a 3% rise. Bigger is always better. More and more is even better. Forever. We’ll return to the highly dubious claim that Underbelly “saves” Edinburgh money later.

He writes: “The company, which runs the events from its offices in Edinburgh, is committed to sustaining Edinburgh’s Hogmanay as the world class event which reminds the world that Scotland is the home of Hogmanay and shines a spotlight on the country and its culture in the winter months. While doing this Underbelly seeks to reduce the burden on the public purse by using the commercial aspects of Hogmanay and Christmas to reduce need for public funding.”

Quite why he had to point out that the company runs its events from Edinburgh isn’t clear. Nor is the need to “remind the world that Scotland is the home of Hogmanay”. I never heard the world claiming otherwise.

Then there is a desperate claim about the amount of charitable works Underbelly does:

“Edinburgh’s Christmas gave 200 tickets to looked after children and young people under the care of City of Edinburgh Council.”

They then go on to boast of having given away free tickets to people for a cultural event that used to be a free and public one, as if there benevolence is somehow a thing of marvel.

They even have the cheek to boast about “Hogmanay’s newer Message from the Skies project invited young people from across the central belt to enter a writing competition to see their story up in lights.”

This is a project which Citizen can reveal is funded by Creative Scotland. In documents we have seen Message from the Skies received Targeted EXPO Fund money of £180,000.

Underbelly on behalf of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Message from the Skies Targeted Fund – EXPO Fund GIA £180,000 15/10/18 Edinburgh Central

Mr Wood told the Scotsman:

“We are not being defensive about this. We want people to view Edinburgh’s Christmas on its own positive merits, but also see that its commercialisation helps support an event that was previously almost entirely funded by the taxpayer.”

“People might have a view that we make Christmas commercial purely for the sake of Underbelly. That’s just not true. We actively use it for another event which doesn’t make a profit at all.”

Threats

The logic gets more and more tormented.

He adds:

“It’s not just our festivals that are going to have to get more commercial. Every festival is going to have to do so, otherwise where is the money going to come from to maintain them?”

But Wood seems confused not just about the sort of strange sense of entitlement that pours out of every statement but the very purpose of his company:

“The Christmas event also supports the city. If you didn’t have one you wouldn’t have a busy city centre. That’s why most cities in Britain, and Europe, have Christmas celebrations.”

So, the last time I checked shops are pretty busy at Christmas. If they’re not its probably because people are skint or they’ve realised that just buying lost of shit you don’t need is an intrinsically stupid empty thing to do that’s destroying the world we live on.

But let’s say that bringing a couple of hundred thousand people to Edinburgh in December is ESSENTIAL for some unclear reason, is Underbelly the best company to do this?

Probably not but then comes the threats. Wood says (definitely NOT being defensive at all):

“The city needs to decide whether it wants to sustain the current operating basis of the Christmas and Hogmanay events, and whether these highly popular events, which bring a lot of visitors into the city, and sell tickets to increasing numbers of local residents, should be allowed to continue.”

“This is about whether people want Princes Street Gardens to be used for Edinburgh’s Christmas. If they don’t, that’s fine. We can move on and the city can move on. But there is no way these events are sustainable without the use of East Princes Street Gardens.”

“If you don’t have East Princes Street Gardens, then you don’t have Edinburgh’s Christmas, and you don’t have Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. That’s the bottom line.”

The Scotsman’s Brian Ferguson tweets: “Should Edinburgh’s world-famous winter festivals, which are worth an estimated £150m to the economy and had an audience of 1.1m people last year, be scaled back or axed to keep Princes St Gardens free of “commercialism”?

But that’s not the real choice at all.

East Princes Street Gardens are taken over every year. These are public spaces. The preparation means they are out of action for months (starting in October) and the repair work and re-planting means they are inaccessible for months afterwards as well.

Currently Underbelly have been given a two-year extension on the current contract to ensure stability for the Christmas and Hogmanay events until the end of 2021, after which time the city council will reconsider.

Under the current plan model for the two events, the council says it has recouped more than £250,000 back from the Christmas festival. However Underbelly refuses to say how much income had been generated in total, citing commercial confidentiality.

The fact that one company receives such large public support (£996,000 plus £180k from Creative Scotland) without revealing its profits is shocking. The reality that they damage the infrastructure of public spaces, seemingly have no clause in their contract insisting they use local businesses in their markets and then have the temerity and self-entitlement to issue a press release hinting that they might flounce off if they don’t get what – an extended contract or more subsidy – is hilarious.

Out Cold

Underbelly was previously in controversy after it was revealed that the entertainment company offered, in return for work at the annual street party event in Scotland’s capital, to reimburse volunteers with travel expenses and meals and, after they complete their shifts, a “thank you message” and a certificate.”

That’s all.

Etonians Ed Bartlam & Charlie Wood are the directors of Underbelly which boasts on its own website that it:

“also produces Edinburgh’s Christmas, Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, Christmas in Leicester Square, Udderbelly Festival in Hong Kong, West End Live in Trafalgar Square and Pride in London for Westminster City Council”.

At the time Bryan Simpson from Better Than Zero and the Unite trade union issued a statement saying:

“To ask 120 well-trained staff to work 12 hours in the freezing cold for free is morally unacceptable and possibly illegal given the profit made by the event. As one of the main sponsors of the event we will be asking questions of Edinburgh City Council, particularly given their unanimous support of our Fair Hospitality Charter which commits the council to the pay the living wage at its venues.”

Edinburgh and Underbelly have created a monster. A festival that used to be free, that is now so commodified that they hand out tickets and want a clap on the back. What a city. What a racket. What a disgrace.

I want my money back.

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