Festival Fringe Circus Hub in the Meadows

Posted on: June 9, 2021

Our detailed objections to the proposal to temporarily privatise a significant portion of publicly owned greenspace in the heart of Edinburgh

Address: 1 Middle Meadow Walk, The Meadows, Edinburgh

Proposal: To erect a temporary outdoor commercial performance structure and hospitality venue on public parkland for event promoter Underbelly’s “Circus Hub” as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Ref No: 21/02736/FUL

Closing date for comments: 11 June 2021

Determination date: 16 July 2021

Result: Pending

Cockburn Response

The Cockburn Association would wish to offer the following comments on this application.

We do so in the context that we have great sympathy for local businesses who have been hardest hit by the lockdown restrictions and believe it is essential for the local economy get back on its feet and to get the iconic Festivals back in operation.  We made this clear in a communication to the City’s Planning Committee on 18 May in the context of the relaxation of planning control encouraged by the Scottish Government has part of the Covid recovery programme of action.

The Cockburn acknowledges the fact that the applicant has erected similar infrastructure on this site having secured a contract from the City Council to do.  This displaced the “Lady Boys of Bangkok” who operated from here for several years and who we understand will operate from Festival Square this year.  Other events such as the Meadows Festival and Moonwalk use the Meadows, and historically, the 1886 International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art was sited here where a temporary dispensation to the erection of buildings was allowed.

However, the Cockburn is aware that no planning consent has been sought for their operation in The Meadows despite it being a very clear Change of Use to Class 11 (Assembly and Leisure) and operates for longer than the 28 days in any year.  The implications of such a change of use are considerable.  It would permit large wholly-commercial developments to use a public open space year-round and would set a dangerous precedent for other open spaces in the city.

As such, the past history of occupation should not be taken as a material consideration in this application or should be given minimal weight.  In effect, from a planning perspective, a this is a new application for a development in a public park.

Covid has also demonstrated the critical need to preserve open spaces for well-being, both physical and mental.  The enclosure of a sizable part of the Meadows will have a material impact on space available for informal recreation and enjoyment, and should be resisted.

Fundamentally, the Cockburn believes that soft landscaped areas should not be used for events that require heavy infrastructure due to the damage that they cause.  The proximity to trees causes further concern due to the potential compaction of root systems leading to long-term decay or even loss.  We dispute the assessment by the applicant that no trees are affected by the application.  Root systems at both Middle Meadow Walk and Boy’s Brigade Walk will be affected, especially the former with the hospitality elements located adjacent to the existing avenue.

A recent site visit shows that the ground has still to recover fully from events held in 2019.  Serious compaction of soil has occurred where previous event infrastructure was located.

We note that the Edinburgh Improvement Act of 1827 expressly stipulates that no buildings may be erected in the Meadows or Bruntsfield Links.  The Meadows are also Common Good Assets, requiring the Council to manage them for the benefit of residents.  We believe that this development is contrary to the spirit, if not fact, of the 1827 Act and to the use as a enclosed, exclusive event space is not consistent with Common Good land.

The Marchmont, Meadows and Bruntsfield Conservation Area Character Appraisal notes that the Meadows is the largest urban recreational parkland in the city and affords panoramic views to the north and east. It also notes the importance of the recreational open space at Bruntsfield Links and Meadows as one of the premier open spaces in the city.  The appraisal indicates that it is designated a Millennium Park, which means that the Council will ensure that the park is protected in perpetuity as community open space. The appraisal also notes the occasional use by festival temporary venues.

There are other sites in the city where would be welcome this event.  Festival Square and the related Conference Square provides a hard surfaced area more than capable of hosting this event this year, close to Princes Street and a variety of public transport corridors.  Large car parks, such as Meadowbank Retail Park, might also be alternatives.

In addition, we strongly advocate that pop-up food and drink facilities should be deleted from the proposals.  It is more important that established, permanent year-round neighbouring pubs and restaurants benefit from any trade associated with this type of use.  Almost half the site is given over to its use as a licensed premise.  We liken this to be similar to a cruise ship – self-contained with the objective of reducing off-site sales to a minimum.  Whilst this might be good for the operator, it does little to support the local economy.

Relevant development plan policies are:

Policy ENV 6 – Conservation Areas (Development) states:

“Development within a conservation area or affecting its setting will be permitted which: a) preserves or enhances the special character or appearance of the conservation area and is consistent with the relevant conservation area character appraisal b) preserves trees, hedges, boundary walls, railings, paving and other features which contribute positively to the character of the area and c) demonstrates high standards of design and utilises materials appropriate to the historic environment.”

Our view – the CACA makes it clear that its character is an open space and its appearance is as an open parkland.  The erection of a temporary building to host a commercial event with gated access is not consistent with its special character.

Policy ENV12 Trees states:

“Development will not be permitted if likely to have a damaging impact on a tree protected by a Tree Preservation Order or on any other tree or woodland worthy of retention unless necessary for good arboricultural reasons. Where such permission is granted, replacement planting of appropriate species and numbers will be required to offset the loss to amenity.”

Our view – the develop is likely to have a damaging impact on the root systems of trees along Middle Meadow Walk and is therefore inconsistent with this policy.

Policy ENV18 Open Space Protection states:

“Proposals involving the loss of open space will not be permitted unless it is demonstrated that: a) there will be no significant impact on the quality or character of the local environment and b) the open space is a small part of a larger area or of limited amenity or leisure value and there is a significant over-provision of open space serving the immediate area and c) the loss would not be detrimental to the wider network including its continuity or biodiversity value and either there will be a local benefit in allowing the development in terms of either alternative equivalent provision being made or improvement to an existing public park or other open space or e) the development is for a community purpose and the benefits to the local community outweigh the loss.”

Our view – The proposals will result in the loss of open space due to its restrictive enclosure.  We believe that it will have a significant impact on the Meadows overall and will reduce its use for amenity and recreational activity as a result. We also believe that the need for informal recreational open space in the current Covid climate makes this a pre-eminent policy objective.

Policy ENV22 Pollution and Air, Water and Soil Quality states:

“Planning permission will only be granted for development where: a) there will be no significant adverse effects for health, the environment and amenity and either b) there will be no significant adverse effects on: air, and soil quality; the quality of the water environment; or on ground stability c) appropriate mitigation to minimise any adverse effects can be provided.”

Our view – there a substantial negative impact on soil compaction and therefore soil quality.  it is clear that the turf is struggling to regenerate over much of the area covered by the application despite no activity in 2020.

The Association is of the view that the proposed development is inconsistent with Local Development Plan policies and with the duties of the local authority to manage these Common Goods Assets for the benefit of the public.

We would therefore wish to formally object to this application. 

Should the Committee be minded to approve this, we would strongly advocate that any consent be time limited for this year only and be made personal to the applicant only.  The reason for this is to decouple the temporary relaxation of planning control encouraged by the Scottish Government as a Covid recovery initiative and to allow future consideration of the suitableness of this site as part of the Council’s Events and Filming in Public Spaces Management proposals, which are currently in development phase.