Winter Festival Consultation

Posted on: May 19, 2021

Our response to a Council consultation on the future of Edinburgh’s Festive Festivals

The City of Edinburgh Council is consulting on the future of the city’s two winter Festivals – Edinburgh’s Christmas and Edinburgh’s Hogmanay. The Council hopes “to engage in an open public conversation about the future of these events, to listen to feedback from residents and to ensure that the future of the winter festivals achieves the right balance for those living and working in Edinburgh.”

Consultation opening date: 24th February 2021

Consultation closing Date: 19th May 2021

Cockburn Response

The Cockburn Association appreciates the popularity of the Winter Festivals.  We have stated repeatedly over the past number of years that it adds vibrancy and vitality to the City.  Edinburgh’s Hogmanay is now a global icon that, at the turn of each year, markets the city to a global audience on par with Melbourne and New York City to name a few.

However, both the Christmas Market and the various Hogmanay events are major commercial events rather than cultural festivities.  The Xmas market has moved considerably from the German market that once occupied the Mound with largely authentic products and produce to such a scale that it now modifies the Princes Street Gardens to suit its purposes rather than sits respectfully within them.

Now, these festive events impose significant restrictions on residents and those working in the city.  Both are now geared to the tourist market rather than the local, with 2018 official figures indicating that less than half attendees of the Xmas market were local residents, which falls even further to just 20% for Hogmanay.

Pre-Covid, the Winter Festivals have been an increasing cause of concern for residents and civic organisations through the city.  The erection of a massive space deck in East Princes Street Gardens by the Council’s contractor Underbelly, together with other issues regarding the operation of Edinburgh’s Hogmanay events (such as attempts to exclude local residents from the city centre) were merely the straw that broke the back of civic interest. The City Council’s response to these issues was less than satisfactory and highlighted the conflicted interests that it has in such matters.

These issues prompted a joint response by the Cockburn and the five City Centre Community Councils prompted by the City of Edinburgh Council’s Policy and Sustainability Committee (Thursday 20th August 2020).

Current Consultation

The Cockburn welcomes the consultation on the future of the Winter Festival.  This was promised as a response to the unsatisfactory management and governance of recent festivals.

However, we are concerned with some of the information provided in the on-line consultation.  For example, figures are put in the introduction with no links to the actual reports or data, which has been relatively unchallenged.  Commercial confidentiality means that key information is unavailable for scrutiny.

Some issues were unexplored (environmental and carbon impacts), and others would benefit from further discussion and consultation.  In this regard, we hope that the various stakeholder groups convened by the consultants would be re-established to receive the report from this consultation and have a chance to consider and discuss the findings.

Covid and Covid-secure challenges

The current uncertainty of restrictions and the general acceptance that we will be living with Covid and Covid-variants for some time needs to be reflected in any event post 2021.

An enhanced (and not just “adequate”) security and people management ?? policy for all aspects of the Winter Festivals will be an absolute priority with respect to public protection.  It is clear that for years to come, the implications of Covid and the management requirements caused by Covid will continue.  The Winter Festivals should have the high levels of management to prevent overcrowding, protect public health and ensure social distancing.

For this reason, together with concerns about previous Winter Festivals, suggests the need for a carefully considered attendee dispersal strategy post-2021.  Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

It is our view that the Christmas Market, Hogmanay and associated events should not be held in East Princes Street Gardens or at least reduced to the extent that only the upper terrace is used.  No space structure such as that erected on 2019 should be permitted.

Key Principles for the Winter Festivals post 2021

The principle of free access must underpin the Winter Festivals offer, especially for those activities that occupy public space.  We accept that there will be some ticketed events (such as the Hogmanay Street Party) but these should be limited with a default position of no exclusive access to public areas.

No public or quasi-public areas with soft landscaped surfaces should be used for activities that require substantial infrastructure that might cause damage to those areas.  For the Cockburn, it is unacceptable for a public space like east Princes Street Gardens to be unavailable for 6 months of the year to facilitate a commercial Christmas Market that operates for 6 weeks.  There are other places and solutions available, such as integrating Waverley Bridge into the market, and using corporate sponsorship to fund entertainment activities.

There should be no loss of public circulation space resulting from measures put in place for these events. For the avoidance of doubt, such management and social distancing measures must not be a Trojan horse for increased commodification of public spaces including streets.

There must be a direct commitment from the Winter Festival management to contribute to Edinburgh’s carbon reduction targets. All contracts should explicitly reference to ISO 20121 on sustainable events as a benchmark for management.  Travel to the events by attendees (including a full breakdown of EH postcodes) should be included in any carbon counting exercise in order to assess, and therefore manage, the full carbon impact of the Festivals.

It is vital that absolute priority is given to supporting existing local businesses and micro-businesses including local social enterprises (Edinburgh Social Enterprise is the most appropriate source of assistance) through all aspects of the events. The aim to create an Edinburgh Christmas Makers’ Market is welcome but important details will need to be developed.

Public interest and protection will be best served by scaling down the market.  In 2019 67% of outlets in 2019 were non-local. There were also too many “repeat” stalls – i.e. stalls owned by the same retailer selling the same products, in many cases products available in traditional High Street shops.   Clear reductions are needed in the number, as well as the proportion, of non-local exhibitors.

In particular, there should be no pop-up bars and food outlets, especially as these create direct competition, not additionality, to local all-year round businesses such as bars and cafes.

Dispersal of activities

A significant problem with the Winter Festivals pre-Covid was the desire of operators to concentrate activity is a small area.  With the Xmas Market, this meant East Princes Street Gardens which were unable and unsuitable to cope with an ever-increasing activity.

Planning applications submitted in early 2020 proposed locating market stalls on High Street and George Street with possible other facilities located in streets will clearly have an impact on local residents for more than two months. We therefore ask that residents on all affected streets are consulted for a period of at least two weeks, before a decision is taken about where the market stalls will be located on the City Trail.

The Cockburn strongly advocates the creation of a Christmas City Centre Trail using sites across the City Centre in various locations for markets which could bring additional benefits to those areas. This should include existing markets, such as those in Stockbridge, Castle Terrace Car Park and the Grassmarket, as part of this trail.  The maps below shows a comparison of relative distances between Munich’s famous Xmas market locations and suggested locations in Edinburgh.  Edinburgh’s Festival Square and Conference Square provide an excellent location for the Winter Festivals which could be coupled with The Mound/Waverley Bridge and the possibly the High Street to form an excellent offer.



The 2019 Winter Festivals were a watershed moment where public concerns about the impact of the Christmas Market and the restrictions and impositions placed upon local residents and businesses for the Hogmanay events reached a tipping point.

This consultation is a direct result of the public disquiet at the approach taken by the Council in managing (or undermanaging) the impacts and the ambivalence of Underbelly, the City’s contracted partner for the delivery of the Winter Festivals to these issues.  The damage caused to East Princes Street Gardens, effectively removing public access for half a year directly caused by the Christmas Market and its space deck erected without proper consents was a low point in history of the Festivals.

Fundamental to any event that happens post-2021 is the need for the City Council so show leadership in managing the special place and unique qualities of the city. The Council must no longer simply hand over control of significant parts of the public realm to a commercial operator because it is expedient to do so.

The Cockburn would welcome the return of the Winter Festivals but only if past failures are rectified.  No soft surfaced public space should be used for infrastructure.  East Princes Street Gardens should be largely off-limits for use, but a more creative and dispersed approach could yield significant benefits for the city in a way that does not overwhelm more fragile neighbourhoods and localities.

Other cities in the world operate just such events in much more sustainable ways without the negative impact of the repeated damage caused here.  There is no reason why Edinburgh cannot follow suit.