Submitted by Editor on Tue, 29/10/2019 - 11:15

Last night, the Council issued a briefing note to councillors about the situation in East Princes Street Gardens. 

You can read it on Cllr Scott Arthur’s blog HERE, or in the pdf at the foot of this page. 

Spurtle thinks the briefing raises as many questions as it answers. We summarise some key statements from it, and give our responses below.

1. The new structure was needed in order not to damage new/incomplete relandscaping of East Princes Street Gardens.

Did anyone consider alternative responses: for example, reducing the size of the Market or looking for an alternative venue?

2. New structure improves accessibility …

Good. Better accessibility should have been integral to previous versions of the Christmas Market. They’ve had long enough to get it right.

3. … and increases circulation space.

Presumably because it is bigger. Why aren’t we being shown the plans?

4. Underbelly was granted a 2-year extension of contract in order to recompense it for capital outlay on the new structure.

Why did Underbelly need to be recompensed? Why couldn’t it recoup a prudent investment from profits like any other company? If the existing contractual arrangements didnt allow sufficient time for this, and if the new structure was necessary because the event and the venue no longer matched, then surely this was a good reason to scale down or relocate the Christmas Market. There is arguably a conflict of interest here between the Council as party host and the Council as planning authority.

5. Executive Director of Place, in consultation with the Convener and Vice Convener of the Culture & Communities Committee (Cllr Donald Wilson and Cllr Amy Mcneese-Mechan), agreed the extension. This was done under delegated authority ‘due to time constraints’.

Proposals by the National Galleries of Scotland for ‘new and improved service and pedestrian access, landscaping , public realm and other works to achieve improved connections between galleries, gardens and the city beyond’ have been in the public domain since 14 December 2017 (Ref. 17/05842/LBC). Why did the Council and Underbelly only get round to discussing how not to damage the new arrangements in April 2019? 

6. ‘It is acknowledged that the detailed design was not included in the Committee report on 18 June.’ 

This is an understatement. No design information whatsoever was provided in the report: ‘Notes that in order to safeguard the improvements to East Princes Street Gardens being delivered by the National Galleries of Scotland as part of the wider Gallery refurbishment programme, there is a significant additional cost to holding the Christmas Market there; Notes that officers entered into discussion with Underbelly, the winter festivals contractor, to assess how best to meet that additional cost; Notes that officers and Underbelly reached a conditional agreement to extend Underbelly’s contract for two of the optional three years extension, to enable Underbelly to meet this additional cost’. Effectively, City of Edinburgh Council gave Underbelly carte blanche to do whatever they wanted, not least because they could proceed without timely planning permission.

7. Elements of the market will move south of the railway to an area previously used for storage.

Nobody we’ve spoken to knows exactly where or how big this area is … because the plan hasn’t been shared. Will this now be a permanent addition to the Christmas Market footprint? Will it perhaps grow?

8. The overall number of stalls has increased.

And, with it, Underbelly’s profit?

9. Underbelly knew as early as 30 August that it required planning permission, but couldn’t make an application until plans for the ‘sky-deck’ had been finalised (on 12 October). It will therefore seek retrospective planning permission.

Build first, operate second, explain last. By which time it’s too late. There are serious issues to address here about due process, licensing, and insurance.

10. There have been some issues with wider communications from Underbelly regarding the use of the Old Town and residents’ access. In fact, the High Street will remain open throughout and no residents or businesses on the Royal Mile will require passes to access their properties.

‘Issues’ doesn’t come close to capturing public outrage at any suggestion they should seek permission or documentation to enter their own homes. We’re glad this has been cleared up, but even the ghost of a whisper of such restrictions should never have arisen in the first place.

Meanwhile, the Conservative Group has questions of its own, to which they seek answers at City Chambers this morning as part of an emergency motion presented in the Governance, Risk and Best Value Committee (see below).

The motion was carried with one amendment – rather than going to Full Council, the report will be presented to the Policy & Sustainability Committee on 26 November. All those who contributed, including local councillors Joanna Mowat (Chair), Claire Miller, Gordon Munro, and Rob Munn, spoke of the need to establish greater detail and clearer timelines about how decisions affecting East Princes Street Gardens had been reached.

There was general consensus that the public controversy and political sensitivity of the Gardens – in terms of their commercial use – meant that a decision made under delegated authority was far from ideal. All were anxious to re-establish public trust in the Council’s processes.

For more on this story see:

Princes Street Gardens – the good old days (25.10.19)

Scaffolding in the park – Council blusters (25.10.19)

Planning flaw threatens Winter Festival food and drink (28.10.19)

Underbelly moves on PAN application (1.11.19)

East Princes Street Gardens (12.11.19)

UPDATE (30.10.19)

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