Why We Need an Edinburgh Festival Fit for the 21st Century

The 2020 Edinburgh Festivals including the Fringe and International Festival have now been cancelled. The huge risk to public health in Scotland if these annual events were staged as usual has rightly been assessed as unacceptable. Corona virus cases continue to rise and nobody knows when we will have the pandemic under control.

I was the first Edinburgh Councillor to call for the Festival’s cancellation, recognising the dangerous public health burden that an influx of 4 million international visitors would create. It is also true that hosting the Festival poses a serious and continuing environmental challenge in the context of the global climate emergency.

While our Festivals are much-loved, in recent years they have also become much-maligned by citizens of our city. Mounting concerns about the commercialisation of public spaces, the environmental impact on key green spaces such as Princes Street Gardens and the unliveable conditions created for city centre residents for months of the year have led to calls to re-evaluate the frequency and impact of the festivals.

Last year, many visitors and locals found streets stuffed with commercial advertising hard to navigate, in particularly the disabled and those with limited mobility. Small business owners objected to the Council overturning their own guidelines and allowing Fringe advertisers free reign with posters on railings, billboards and even ‘pods’ throughout the city. Commuters found buses packed, late and inaccessible. For many of us, the apogee of the public space debacle was reached as Princes Street gardens was boarded up, world-famous views of the Castle blocked and our premier park left a mud bath after the Winter Festival events.

In short, the Festival has outgrown the city. It is clear that a city of 400,000 people can no longer sustain a flood of visitors ten times the number of its own population once a year. It is abundantly clear that Edinburgh is now suffering the multiple consequences of overtourism.

The event that first started as a celebration of the arts in the post-war period, and indeed as an expression of cultural diversity and solidarity has lost its way. Rather than being an authentic celebration of Scottish and international culture, the Festival has become strangled by the grip of big business. So we need to use this breathing space to take stock; to develop a new model for the Festivals that is fit for the 21st Century and puts our communities and our culture first.

It’s not too late. The crisis that we face in 2020 offers us an opportunity to recalibrate, reassess and do things differently. This virus is one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes, but in adversity we are rediscovering the very best of our social and cultural values. We feel more closely the community connections that unite us and bring us hope.

I am confident that we can work together to create an Edinburgh Festival that gets back to its original values of solidarity, sharing and celebration. A festival that showcases world-class art and delivers benefits to communities across the city. A festival that is sustainable, eco-friendly and carbon-neutral. An artist- and community-led event that celebrates rather than exploits Edinburgh. A biennial event once again eagerly anticipated and supported by our own citizens.

A Festival that is fit, once again, for our great city.

Published in the National | 1st April 2020