A troubled Christmas market

Green MSP Alison Johnstone on a troubled Christmas Market.

Many readers will have seen photos circulating on social media of scaffolding balancing precariously on slopes in Princes Street Gardens. It is no wonder that serious concerns have been raised about the construction of Edinburgh’s Christmas market this year, as well as the process by which the council approved it.

In the past few weeks there has been revelation after revelation about Underbelly’s contract being extended without councillor consultation and it not have planning permission for the aforementioned structure. On Friday it was revealed that the 2018 Christmas market did not have planning permission either, while it also emerged that public safety officers ordered that extra work was to be carried out on the market before it could open, sparking further fears about its safety. The market miraculously opened on time, although planning permission cannot be applied for until January, and may not be granted until spring, if it is at all. There has clearly been a series of oversights which are just now coming to light. Sadly this ‘comedy of errors’ is indicative of a growing tendency to overlook residents’ concerns in the interests of Edinburgh’s ballooning tourism industry.

The Green councillors have been vocal on this issue – Councillor Claire Miller, who represents the city centre, has said she is ‘flabbergasted’ at the fact that planning permission has not yet been granted and the council’s failures in this respect. Green councillor, Alex Staniforth, also tabled a motion at Edinburgh Council’s Culture and Communities Committee which called for the council to ‘urgently collaborate’ with Underbelly and ‘look at options’ for relocating this year’s event. Regrettably, the committee voted instead for a Conservative amendment which asked the council to investigate options for next year’s market. This may include moving it out of Princes Street Gardens, however, the failure to urgently respond to residents’ concerns is disappointing to say the least.

The Scottish Greens strongly believe in community participation in local decision-making – in future there must be meaningful consultation with the people of Edinburgh about what they believe the winter festival should look like and where it should be placed. The council has announced an internal investigation into what went wrong this year and fortunately residents will finally be able to have a say on the ever-expanding Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations as part of this.

A report considered by the Policy and Sustainability Committee has already found that ‘there appears to be weaknesses in the Council’s co-ordination of this event.’ I, as well as the rest of Edinburgh I am sure, will be eagerly awaiting the full findings of the council’s investigation. I would expect one of its recommendations to be that any further proposals for the Christmas market be scrutinised by councillors, as explicitly called for by Councillor Miller. This process cannot take place behind closed doors again and must be opened up to public scrutiny. Princes Street Gardens is Common Good Land and is owned by the Local Authority. It therefore follows that the public should be consulted on how it is used – they should at least be given a voice during the decision-making process, through their elected representatives. Community involvement is more crucial than ever as more and more events are taking place which necessitate parts of the garden being shut off or subject to paid access.

In the words of my colleague Andy Wightman, MSP, ‘public land is not for private gain.’