Keep off the Grass

POSTED ON July 8, 2020

Blog statement from Chairman

Though we are only in July, Christmas is coming. East Princes Street Gardens have finally been reopened to the public, after the months-long hiatus caused by the construction, duration and aftermath of the 2019 Christmas Market, with its fairground rides, bratwurst stalls, mulled wine and repetitive huts decked over (and killing) the grass.  If last year’s timetable is repeated, for building in the Gardens to begin in mid-October, an application for planning permission needs to be lodged now.  Something on the scale of last year’s market would count as a major planning application, and so probably take three months to process, since consultations with a range of bodies would be required. Count back from mid-October to see why time is now short. The Cockburn believes that no short-cuts or special dispensations should be offered or given. Like everyone else, developers should be required to comply with the law, and their proposals should be audited against the policies in the statutory Local Development Plan. The reason we have planning and a process of consultation is because even if it is money making for a private company, a development may have other adverse impacts that are not in the public interest. These necessary checks should not be sidestepped.

Following a consultative meeting with Underbelly and their planning consultants, the Cockburn understood that a crucial part of the process for achieving consent for a 2020 Christmas Market, and agreeing a suitable operational model post Covid-19, was to be considered at the Policy & Sustainability Committee of the City of Edinburgh Council on 9 July.  We can see no paper nor any reference to this in the agenda documents published for the meeting. Will somebody please tell the citizens of Edinburgh what is happening?


The Cockburn unequivocally believes that full and proper procedures MUST be followed this time. Last year, development of the Market was allowed without any application for planning permission.  A huge deck was built over the grass so as to enable the mock German Market to be constructed. Memorial benches in the gardens were ditched and burned; relatives were not notified. The Norwegian Christmas tree was taken down to make space for an advertisement. The grass was killed off and the ground compressed. To everyone’s surprise, there was rain in January and February, leaving much of the gardens not just bare but also waterlogged. Public anger was manifested when 850 people turned up on a cold January night to an open Public Summit organised by the Cockburn Association on the theme “City for Sale?” This huge turnout reflected deep and wide concerns about the commodification of public space in Edinburgh. It is now essential that all substantive decisions are made in public, especially where Common Goods Land is involved.

Edinburgh aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. How would a 2019 style Christmas Market, with its generators and trinkets from afar, contribute to this endeavour? Last year nobody seems to have asked that before the event went ahead. The Cockburn asks here and now for this Christmas.

Covid 19

Now Covid-19 has arrived, bringing warnings about large gatherings and the need for social distancing. So one obvious question is whether a repeat of what happened in 2019-20 is really a good idea? Of course, we all want to enjoy the Christmas season, and the Christmas Market helps draw tourists into Edinburgh, so will be seen by some as a quick fix way towards economic recovery. Organisers and council officials will put a ticket on it, saying how much footfall it creates, and how much income it generates, though in the past they have been more reticent about where the money goes to. But, as the New York City Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver said in a recent Cockburn conversation the true value of our parks is as parks, public health-giving assets that are open to all.

What would happen if there were a spike in the virus in Edinburgh during November or December? If somebody among the crowds visiting the Market tested positive, how would test and trace work, and who would be responsible for contacting people? What would be the impact on local health services? Presumably there would need to be controlled entrances, screening, some form of “deep cleaning”, and maybe more. The Council has a special responsibility to think carefully about how we are going to celebrate Christmas and Hogmanay this year.

The Cockburn suggests the following checklist that should inform such thinking:

  1. Public health and safety considerations must be paramount, overriding all else. This includes recognising the incalculable value of our parks and greenspaces for the physical and mental well-being of all throughout the year.
  2. The content and standards of any temporary constructions in public spaces should be authentic to Edinburgh as the capital and a World Heritage City.
  3. This year’s celebrations should be staged primarily for locals, with involvement of local businesses, creative artists and musicians, and dispersed around the city. They should be supported by the money previously paid to the winter festivals organisers. Visitors from across and beyond the city would be welcome, of course, but not enticed. A Christmas Trail could connect the parts of this multi-site festival.
  4. There should be no development on ‘soft’ ground; only hard landscaped areas can be used, with immediate reinstatement afterwards.
  5. The events and installations should begin on 1 December and be entirely cleared by 5 January 2021.
  6. All finances to be openly available for scrutiny; no clandestine deals by Council officials. Increased delegated powers to senior officers and leading councillors granted during the pandemic should not be used to hide decisions as controversial as the use of East Princes Street Gardens for commercial purposes.
  7. All aspects to be the subject of compliance where necessary with planning procedures, and demonstrate good environmental practices, contributing to the city’s aim to become carbon neutral by 2030.

Keep (commercial businesses) Off The Grass

In short, it is time to say “Keep Off The Grass” to commercial organisations eying the business opportunities of our public parks. Grass needs sunlight and oxygen. Placing boards on top is bad for grass. Compacting soil squeezes out air and water that are essential for roots to thrive, and for healthy tree development. The more often you do it, the worse things get, and the sooner waterlogging kicks in. Regular Christmas markets or similar events on grassed surfaces represent a game of Russian Roulette with the health of our parks. Put events on hard standing. There will be no big wheel in the gardens this summer to protect the grass; there should be none this winter either.

More positively, Edinburgh has a great opportunity to experiment with a new way of doing its festivals. Necessity is the mother of invention.  Covid-19 and the damage done to East Princes Street Gardens in 2019 mean we need to change, and change now. The days of macho branding of community events to compete with other cities for a fleeting glimpse on international TV news channels are the past, not the future. Local events, nurturing local talent, open to all and respecting the built and natural environment are the way ahead.

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