Professor Cliff Hague’s reflections on Festival Fringe 2022

POSTED ON September 2, 2022

The future of the August festivals is too important to be left entirely to the organisers, entertainers
and events companies.

The future of the August festivals is too important to be left entirely to the organisers, entertainers, and events companies. The adrenalin boost given by the post-Covid return earlier in this hot summer is giving way to angst and introspection as autumn looms. The yardstick, the ‘normality’ against which comparisons are being made is 2019. There was no app, ticket sales were down, accommodation prices were ridiculous, acts lost money: what is to be done? The Fringe Society’s new strategy, launched just weeks ago, seems to have been lost in the frenzy. Meanwhile soaring energy costs and the cost-of-living crisis is threatening to change the landscape for businesses, venues, performers and audiences.

Instead of looking back to 2019, we need to look forwards, not least because there was a lot of dissatisfaction with the disregard to some of the negative side effects of the ‘festivalisation’ of Edinburgh. While ever more visitors thronged the streets and plied the pop-up bars, the city’s public services struggled to cope. Investors swooped on previously affordable flats, flipped them to short- term lets and reduced the effective supply of housing for citizens. The public were excluded from their public spaces unless they paid an entry fee. There was general unease, then Covid, then ‘here we go again’.

To create a resilient Festival City, some basic points need to be addressed. The reason why accommodation is so expensive in August is because the demand is so high, and the supply is fixed. Short-term lets were a Trojan horse: the festivals expected that they would increase the supply of cheap beds in people’s flats. In practice, professional whole-house renters extracted premium August rents. The recently declared whole-city control zone has prompted a rush of planning applications to regularise the new commercial uses; they are being refused.

More could be done to increase access to the multitude of student flats that have been built in recent years, but otherwise the supply side looks rather static. The obvious way to reduce demand without putting at risk the buzz that makes the festivals special is to spread the load. Stand-up comedy has become a major part of the Fringe, but does it need to co-habit? Why not a free- standing Edinburgh Comedy Festival at some other time of year?

Did the Film Festival, which previously had mid-June to itself, really need to jostle for street space for its red carpets at the same time that thousands were trudging (and littering) those same streets as they rushed to the next Fringe show?

Other towns run successful book festivals without shoe-horning them in alongside thousands of competing shows. The Book Festival has the reputation that would enable it to stand on its own two feet at some other time of year. Then there are those who ride on the coattails of the actual festivals. Summer Sessions monopolises West Princes Street Gardens for weeks when the gardens are most needed. The Council could simply say ‘no’ and direct the concerts to concert venues.

The bin strike added to the existing challenges of basic visitor management processes during the peak visitor season. Even before the strike, litter and waste collection services struggled to cope with bins of all types full to overflowing. The chronic undermanagement of the city’s public spaces during the peak Festival and tourism season was evident for all to see. Tales of buses unable to run to timetable (in part due to ongoing road maintenance) could be heard as well as some Uber operators refusing to take passengers into the city centre due to delays and therefore lost revenue.

There are a host of other issues that the Fringe in particular needs to address, and indeed has acknowledged, and is seeking to make changes. Fair rates of pay, environmental sustainability, affordable prices, accessibility, promotion of new local talent all come to mind, as well as listening to local residents. But progress will be stunted if the thinking is getting back to 2019 then going even bigger after that.

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