Clowning Around at the Edinburgh Festival: Culture and Social Cleansing

Bella Caledonia, by Mike Small
20.08.19

Edinburgh is buzzing. It’s week three and the kids shows are packed-out, despite the Scottish schools being back from their summer holidays. Funny that.

The response to the CITIZEN’s film by Bonnie Prince Bob has been a mixture of vitriol and epiphany, hyper-defensiveness and celebration. 45k people have watched it and it’s garnered over 1000 ‘likes’.

The PR response is now in over-drive.

The Times yesterday told us: “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is worth about £1bn to Scotland — three times greater than had been thought — according to a fresh economic analysis of the world’s biggest arts festival.”

The paper gushes: “Official data shows admissions up by about 45% since 2010, and by nearly a quarter in the last three years alone …More than 59,600 performances of 3,841 shows will be staged across 323 venues this month, suggesting that the Fringe has grown by about 20% in five years.”

One of the central problems is the routinely celebrated growth model. 20% in five years? Will there be another 20% in another five years? Another 20% in another five years? Is anyone thinking that’s maybe NOT a good thing?

[Note to reader: absolutely nobody drinking from the cash cow is thinking that’s a bad thing.]

At what point does somebody say “We need another measurement of success”?

Another paper, the Evening News, paints a different picture. They reveal that:

– There are more than 11,000 active listings (listings with at least one review in the last year) on Airbnb in the Capital.

– More than 7,000 of these are entire properties, with another 4,000 rooms inside houses and flats.

– Only 1,700 properties are listed as short-term self-catering units on the business rates register.

Under current Scottish Government rules, any short-term let which operates for more than 140 days a year does not have to pay council tax and instead becomes liable for business rates.

“With small businesses with a rateable value of £15,000 or under given total relief from business rates, it means the vast majority of short-term lets in the city which declare themselves as businesses pay no tax to the council whatsoever.”

Nothing. Not a bean.

This means that Air BnB, the Fringe’s official partner since 2015 gives nothing back at all.

As we said previously (‘1:48 is the new 7: 84’): “The annual UK Housing Review, shows that in the City of Edinburgh alone there are over 10,000 Airbnbs. With a population of 485,000, that means there is an Airbnb for every 48 people in the city. That compares to a figure of one Airbnb per 105 people in greater London, meaning Scotland’s capital has more than twice as many per head.”

Not everybody sees this as a problem. Certainly not AirBnB, certainly not the Fringe.

Back in 2015 when their partnership started the Fringe announced:

“Airbnb, the world’s leading community-driven hospitality company, today announced its new role as an Official Accommodation Partner of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Edinburgh is one of the top destinations in the UK for home sharing on Airbnb, attracting close to 40,000 guests a year, and can expect to welcome thousands of visitors for the festival this August.

The region has seen impressive growth recently with a 300% increase in guests staying through Airbnb, and 87% more hosts year on year. The annual Fringe brings a huge influx of performers and spectators to the city all needing a place to stay, and home sharing is a great way for locals to reap the benefits.”

87% more hosts year on year. Endless growth. You do the math.

It’s clear that the cultural sector is enthusiastically supporting a partnership with a company that has meant the hollowing-out of residential communities, and effective social cleansing and artwashing of whole areas of the city.

That’s a disgrace.

Peoples Institute for the Arts

Increasingly then the question becomes: what is the festivals long-term legacy?

Increasingly the festivals huge success raises deeper more fundamental questions.

The film-maker Bonnie Prince Bob writes:

“When asked to comment on my film, Edinburgh Council leader Adam McVey claimed that Edinburgh hosts “the biggest cultural event on the planet”.

“If this gargantuan festival of the arts was a permanent feature in any other major World tourist city, then grand Institutions of the arts would be funded on the basis of the taxes raised from the countless incomers.”

“Despite annually trumpeting the phenomenal scale and huge returns generated, this so-called Scottish City of the Enlightenment has organised no benefits in the arts for its residents, or for that matter the youth of Scotland. Where is our World famous institute of the arts?”

“Where is our Frank Gehry/ Norman Foster designed -overpriced architectural glass and steel marvel (funded through a combination of tourist tax, philanthropy and corporate loot) offering education in all artistic disciplines and providing bursaries and scholarships to the less privileged in our communities? Bilbao is a city two-thirds the size of Edinburgh in one of the most deprived areas of Spain, yet, with progressive thinking, still managed to fund the Guggenheim’s £100 million construction with a £50 million acquisition fund and plus a one-time £20 million fee towards the annual payments.”

He continues:

“When August’s orgy of corporate profit is over in Edinburgh, what is left for the populace? The vast majority of capital leaves the city. It is an indictment and embarrassment that in over 70 years of the Festival and with the increasing solicitation of the City’s public space, Edinburgh Council and successive Scottish governments have failed to adequately tax and reinvest into the artistic enrichment of Edinburgh and Scotland.”

Of course he’s right and the more the leaders of the council and the custodians of cultural capital respond to criticisms with claims of vast income and huge amounts of money swilling about the city, the more the question hangs, so what?

Detractors of the Citizen or Bonnie Prince Bob’s work argue that it’s miserabilist and ‘negative’. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have loads of ideas, as lots of other people will have too.

Why isn’t North Edinburgh Arts Centre funded by the festival? Why isn’t Whale Arts the beneficiaries of a twenty year programme of support for the people of Wester Hailes? Why isn’t the Book Festival re-located to Leith Links? Why aren’t young people in Edinburgh the beneficiaries of an incredible programme of cultural opportunity? Why isn’t there a programme of bursaries to fund places at the Conservatoire in Glasgow? Why isn’t the Kings Theatre refurbishment, or Leith Theatre’s re-development swelling with the generous endowment of the festival?

Why isn’t there a People’s Institute of the Arts as a legacy of the festival after such a long time?

Edinburgh needs to reclaim its festival through degrowth and democracy, so that our cultural asset can thrive and our city can be a capital of culture. In times of binary Brexit division, social inequality and a retreat into racism and parochialism, it’s not hard to see how the festival could reclaim its origin story and re-boot as an event for all the people.