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Learning from the winter festival

What lessons can be learned from the controversy over the Christmas and Hogmanay events, asks Alex Staniforth.

Cllr Alex Staniforth
Cllr Alex Staniforth

It is a while ago now, but this past festive season wasn’t comfortable for Edinburgh, with a torrent of criticism about the scale and nature of festive events and their impact on parks and public spaces. Whatever you think of the criticism, it would not have stuck had it not resonated with a collective unease about the balance between tourism and the needs of residents; as well as between public and private use of space.

In my view, Edinburgh should have a festive programme we can proud of. Hogmanay is a distinctive Scottish tradition and it is right that Scotland’s capital should take the lead internationally in celebrating the turn of the year. But for that to ring true it has to be authentically Scottish.

Similarly, at a gloomy time of year, the Christmas programme is genuinely exciting for many families but more needs to be done to make it accessible and affordable; and to radically rethink the impact it has on Princes Street Gardens.

As a company, Underbelly has taken a pounding over the last few months. For the remaining two years of its contract to deliver the festive events it needs to show that it has heeded those messages, with a bigger rethink on arrangements after 2022.

But it’s not just about the festivals – winter or summer – is it? Like many cities Edinburgh is wrestling with managing its popularity as place to visit. We are rightly proud of our status as a great European city, outward-looking and welcoming. Back in 2016, more than any other UK city, Edinburgh voted to remain in the European Union, by a factor of three to one.

Tourism, too, is big business in Edinburgh, directly employing 33,000 people, even if many of the profits leak out of the city, at least until the city gets the long-awaited tourist levy. But we cannot shy away from the fact that tourism in its current form is a serious danger to our planet. In a climate emergency it makes no sense to base an economy on tens of millions of people criss-crossing the globe in aeroplanes seeking out genuine experiences before they are destroyed by, guess what? Mass tourism and climate chaos.

Edinburgh’s tourism strategy is to move away from encouraging growth to managing that growth more effectively. That’s a welcome shift but not enough: infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. So dramatic changes in transport as well as in the tourist industry are needed to find a way to enjoy our planet without destroying our planet.

There is a new social cost of the visitor economy too, in the shape of the Airbnb explosion. Originally conceived as a light-touch and benign way of residents offering rooms in their homes for visitors it has now become an aggressive way of making massive profit from property, taking 7,000 properties out of residential use in Edinburgh at any one time, and with big impacts on how neighbourhoods work, from communal bins to noise problems in stairways, and putting extra pressure to build yet more new homes on the city’s already fragile green spaces and green belt.

Although some new powers to tackle short term lets have (belatedly) been promised for councils by the Scottish Parliament, if Edinburgh is to reverse the loss of homes to holiday lets it will take a lot more work.

That is why I am delighted to see a new holiday lets tracker developed by my Green MSP colleague Andy Wightman. By clicking on www.homesfirst.scot/ citizens can record a holiday let in their stair or area and allow us to build up a detailed picture of what is going on. Since its launch only two weeks ago almost 200 cases have been logged.

With public support, 2020 could be the year when Edinburgh takes decisive steps to tackle both climate change and the impacts of mass tourism at the same time.