CHIEF EXEC’S REPORT MOSTLY ABSOLVES COUNCIL

Following an emergency motion by Cllr Joanna Mowat, a report (pp. 282–288) has been published for consideration by the City of Edinburgh Council’s Policy & Sustainability Committee on 26 November. 

Prepared by CEC’s Chief Executive Andrew Kerr, it examines decision making around the East Princes Street Gardens Christmas Market. 

Below we summarise what seem to us the most important points.

Questions

Cllr Mowat’s motion sought answers to six questions:

  1. How do the decisions taken by officers and detailed in the briefing note sent to Councillors on 28 October conform to the established Council’s Scheme of Delegation to Officers (‘the Scheme’)? 
  2. When were plans detailing the increase in size and scale seen by senior Council Officers i.e. Head of Service or above?
  3. Did officers identify that the change in layout and increase in infrastructure constituted a politically sensitive decision?
  4. If they did identify this, was it communicated to National Galleries of Scotland and Underbelly?
  5. Do the new plans conform to the Council’s aims as set out in para 3.1.1 in the report presented to the Culture and Communities Committee on Edinburgh’s Christmas and Hogmanay (Item 8.4) on 10 September?
  6. How and when were key decisions consulted on with Councillors?

Answers

1.1 The decision to extend Underbelly’s contract was an appropriate matter for delegation.

1.2 The Executive Director of Place (EDP) Paul Lawrence recognised that the contract decision was likely to be politically controversial and so appropriately sought to consult elected members.

1.3 Underbelly said taking the matter to the Culture & Communities Committee would take too long and could negatively affect ‘deliverability’ of the Hogmanay event. Following discussions with the Leader Adam McVey and Depute Leader Cammy Day and key conveners in May, and further discussions with committee members in June, the EDP went ahead and extended the contract. Although it would have been preferable to wait for the Committee to convene, not doing so was forced by events and was appropriate under the Scheme.

2.1 The EDP first saw plans for an extended Christmas Market in April, and acting appropriately under the Scheme, initially refused permission for the extension south of the railway in May.

2.2 Underbelly again asked for use of the south side in September, saying delayed National Galleries of Scotland landscaping meant they needed alternative space. The Leader, Depute Leader, Conveners/Vice Conveners of Transport & Environment and Culture & Communities, and SNP group were briefed between 4 and 16 September. Culture & Communities Convener/Vice Convener were then briefed again the next day.

2.3 The EDP did not consult all local ward members as required by Scheme rules.

3.1 Officials told Underbelly on 30 August that planning permission was required. Underbelly said there wasn’t time to do this before starting to build on 18 October. Discussions between officials and Underbelly about public safety and protecting the Gardens ended on 12 October.

3.2 Seeking retrospective planning consent is permitted, but still breaches planning regulations.

3.3 ‘Given the importance of the event in terms of public benefit, officers did not consider it appropriate to instruct Underbelly not to proceed in the absence of planning permission.’ To do so would be a change of Council policy regarding the Christmas Market, and would have required committee approval. So too would serving a planning Enforcement notice.

  • For the first time, building warrants certifying compliance with regulations have been granted for all structures in the Market.
  • Comprehensive and independent assessments to ensure safety took place before and during construction. A public safety team also operates during the event.

Report’s conclusions

  • With the exception of Point 2.3 (above), decisions and processes were correct.
  • Landscaping delays caused time-critical problems. Underbelly had responsibility to apply for planning permission.
  • This and previous Christmas Markets have been safe.
  • Mistakes have been made by CEC services, but there has been no systemic failure.
  • ‘Nevertheless, there appears to be weaknesses in the Council’s co-ordination of this event. There was no planning permission for the Christmas Market in 2018 and this was the first year that a building warrant has been in place.’
  • On 14 November [following Spurtle’s exclusive that the 2018-19 event also lacked planning permission], the Chief Executive called an initial meeting on strengthening governance and strategic/operational management of significant events. He will report to the Policy and Sustainability Committee on 25 February 2020.

Spurtle notes and queries

  • So far as we can tell, the report does not address Cllr Mowat’s Question 3. It only deals with political sensitivity as applied to the contract.
  • So far as we can tell, the report does not answer Cllr Mowat’s Question 4.
  • So far as we can tell, the report does not answer Cllr Mowat’s Question 5. If Spurtle had been answering, our response to each of the points would have been ‘no’ (see image below).

  • In Answer 1.3 (above), the Report gets nowhere near unpicking why Underbelly did not foresee potential landscaping challenges years earlier. Some critics may regard the supposed time pressure as more convenient than actual.
  • At Answer 2.2 (above), we are confused about why the Culture & Communities Convener/Vice Convener needed to be briefed twice.
  • At Answer 3.3 (above), what are the precise metrics used for one kind of public benefit (basically, Fun and Income) trumping another kind of public benefit (due process in Planning)?
  • Report concludes it was for Underbelly to seek planning consent. Where is the incentive for Underbelly (or anyone else) to observe Planning regulations if the Council cannot or will not apply and enforce them?
  • Report concludes there was no systemic failure. Erm … hippopotamus in the bathtub … apart from systemic failure of the Planning system.

Got a view? Tell us at spurtle@hotmail.co.uk and @theSpurtle

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