Whose Festival is it Anyway? Reflections on our recent Cockburn Conference

February 26, 2021

A blog from our chairperson, Prof Cliff Hague OBE

What kind of post-Covid recovery should Edinburgh’s festivals contribute to in 2021?

The Scotsman reported (22 February, Festivals need ‘joint effort’ for comeback) the lobbying by the industry’s umbrella body, Festivals Edinburgh, for ticket sales to be underwritten from the public purse because of all the uncertainties that we still face. Nobody denies that the cultural sector has a been badly hit by the Covid pandemic, or that the festivals play a great part in the life of the city, or that the pre-2020 boom in the number and scale of festival goers from far flung parts boosted spending in the capital. However, in January the Cockburn Association held a well-attended online conference on the future of the festivals. The contribution from the Director of Festivals Edinburgh was reported (Scotsman, 8 February), but there were other viewpoints expressed throughout a wide-ranging and more balanced exploration of the issues. Put simply, public money for a shot at ‘back to normal, ASAP’ does not command unanimous support.

“Put simply, public money for a shot at ‘back to normal, ASAP’ does not command unanimous support.”

As the lockdown months slip by, it is easy to forget that 12 months ago our festivals had upset a sizeable swathe of citizens. The low point was the scandalous devastation of East Princes Street Gardens as a consequence of the 2019 Christmas Market that did not bother with planning permission. Around 850 people turned out to a Cockburn Association ‘City for Sale?’ Public Summit to protest about the commodification of our parks and open spaces.  Even the August festivals were drawing critical comment for the disruption that they imposed on daily life and amenity, particularly as they had become ever more intensely concentrated on bringing tourists into the city centre. The lure of premium rents during August fuelled the loss of affordable housing to short-term commercial lets. Not surprisingly then, calls have grown to rethink the role and priorities of our festivals.  The intertwined public health and economic crises that began a year ago have reinforced pre-existing concerns, such as overcrowding, the need to protect public spaces, exclusion and the risks of prioritising tourist numbers over well-being and quality public services.

“The intertwined public health and economic crises that began a year ago have reinforced pre-existing concerns, such as overcrowding, the need to protect public spaces, exclusion and the risks of prioritising tourist numbers over well-being and quality public services.”

Thanks to the NHS I have had my first dose of the vaccine. Like many others, I look forward to revisiting cinemas and theatres. However, I also understand that globally we are likely to have to live with the risks of new mutations and/or viruses; that international travel is a potent vector; that many sectors of the economy and many people have been very severely affected, and inequalities within Scotland and within Edinburgh have widened. Through all this, the climate emergency remains something needing real action now, not just aspirational targets for 10, 20 or 25 years hence.  Back to 2019 is not, and should not be, the way to go.

Contributors to the Cockburn’s ‘Whose Festival is it anyway?’ webinar made important points that need to be addressed as festival organisers and public funders contemplate what we want to happen in 2021 and beyond. Woodland expert Andrew Heald made clear that Princes Street Gardens should not be used for major events like the Summer Sessions concerts or the Christmas Market. He said that unless we start planning and managing the festivals more sustainably, ‘either the festivals won’t be here in 20 years’ time, or the city that I love won’t be here in 20 years’ time’.

“Either the festivals won’t be here in 20 years’ time, or the city that I love won’t be here in 20 years’ time.” ANDY HEALD

Actor/director/producer Shauna Macdonald reported that it cost £1600 a week to hire a venue for Edinburgh Youth Theatre to put on a show in the 2019 Fringe. That is before all the other costs of a production.  As Macdonald explained, ‘to put on your own show at the Fringe is incredibly expensive and you have to have money to lose’. Is that the ‘back to normal’ we should be aiming for? Looking ahead shouldn’t we be removing barriers to engaging young people in arts and culture?

Morvern Cunningham, freelance creative producer who has worked on the Fringe, explained how ‘the festivals really don’t permeate Leith and other parts of the city at all.’ She too talked about ‘the pricing out of artists and audiences’.  She contrasted the days when Fringe Sunday painted the festival as ‘free, open and accessible… people would come into the city and feel an ownership of it’. While Edinburgh residents still attend shows in large numbers, Cunningham detects that ‘the messaging has changed’ with the effect that many now feel that ‘the festival is not for them’. She highlighted Celtic Connections as a festival that has hit the right balance between local and international, putting local artists on show alongside international stars.

A key theme across the discussions was the widening gap between, on the one hand, the scale of the festivals and their associated overtourism – the ‘juggernaut’ of the winter festival as journalist Stephen Jardine called it – and, on the other, the capacity and desire of a cash-strapped council to exert control. There was a debate on whether overtourism was real or not – ETAG chair Donald Emslie and Professor Jane Ali-Knight thought not although no terms were defined.  Interestingly, the World Tourism Organisation defines overtourism as “the impact of tourism on a destination, or parts thereof, that excessively influences perceived quality of life of citizens and/or quality of visitors experiences in a negative way”.

Whilst not mentioned at the conference, it is worth reflecting on a City of Edinburgh Council report published in January 2018 which warned that public perception of the festivals had deteriorated so much that it should be regarded as a “strategic” risk to their future.  A separate Council report published in May 2018 warned that the city was struggling to cope with the major influx of visitors to the city during peak periods resulting in the inability of residents to “get on with normal life”.  Separately, a Research Project conducted by Edinburgh World Heritage titled Perceived Authenticity on the Royal Mile (July 2019) concluded “that the Royal Mile is losing its local character.” Furthermore, “this suggests that the Royal Mile is at risk of becoming a tourist ghetto, which will certainly detract from its long-term appeal, and economic potential.”

There is no doubt that the city struggles with overtourism.

The City Council, the Scottish Government and the festivals/tourism industry operate in an echo chamber, insulated from real engagement with civil society in the capital. The familiar refrain that they share with each other is being aired once again, as public money is sought for 2021. Edinburgh is the world’s leading festival city, but has many competitors; unless we can grow, one of the upstarts will displace us – and second place is for losers.  It is the mindset that drove RBS to disaster in 2008, and one ill-suited to the current situation. We need our festivals, but they should contribute to today’s needs – the carbon neutral targets, reducing exclusion, and boosting health and well-being through quality public spaces accessible to all.

“We need our festivals, but they should contribute to today’s needs – the carbon neutral targets, reducing exclusion, and boosting health and well-being through quality public spaces accessible to all.”

Recordings of the five sessions of the Cockburn Conference ‘Whose Festival is it anyway?’, broadcast live on the 30th January 2021, can be viewed on our YouTube Channel. Cliff Hague’s article on ‘The Festivalisation of Edinburgh’ is in the current issue of Scottish Affairs.