The Edinburgh Festival is suffocating a once great city

No idea. Image: Getty.

It is August, meaning Edinburgh’s festival season is now in full swing. The city’s population more than doubles this month as millions of tourists and tens of thousands of performers descend upon the Scottish capital for the thousands of unique shows on offer. Around 3 million tickets were sold for last year’s Fringe alone, not counting the many other simultaneously occurring festivals.

The celebrations began as a radical freewheeling experiment to promote postwar international solidarity, attempting to bring creative people from around the globe together. Yet it has slowly become corporatszed to the point where a handful of companies with questionable ethical practices, such as Underbelly, have come to dominate, setting the terms and conditions of the Festival, making giant fortunes in the process, even as entertainers lose money.

Putting on a show is generally a losing proposition for artists and even some smaller venues. There are many horror stories; for instance, comedian Barry Fearns revealed how performing at the Festival left him £35,000 in debt and eventually bankrupt. Even selling out a venue does not ensure breaking even. Yet creative people from all over the world continue to come in the hopes of being spotted and breaking into the big time.

While these companies may argue they bring benefits to the local economy in the form of hospitality jobs, surprisingly few of the Festival’s workers are actually being paid, and must toil under “shameful” conditions and are “expected to work to the point of exhaustion”, according to a recent report. The people pulling those £6 pints at 2a.m. may not be even being paid for it. Someone is profiting greatly, but it is evidently not the workers or performers.


Nor is it the residents, who have seen their city simultaneously cheapened and become more expensive due to overtourism. Cut-price chain hotels have controversially set up new breezeblock buildings in the middle of the UNESCO World Heritage site. There are now over 10,000 AirBnB properties in the relatively small city, four times the concentration of London or Paris. These are primarily located in the historic city centre, as landlords have realised it is far more profitable to gouge tourists and performers than rent to locals. An under-regulated buy-to-let market allows companies to snap up properties as soon as they come on the market knowing they can make huge profits on AirBnB. As a result Edinburgh’s house prices and rents have ballooned as rich tourists in short-term rentals crowd locals out. Those that work in the city are forced out of town to buy or tread water paying increasingly higher rents.

Conservation groups have warned that the Old Town is becoming a “tourist ghetto”; the avalanche of indistinguishable cheap touristic “tartan tat” shops compound the problem and make it extremely difficult to live there permanently. Performers too, fear rising rents are threatening the Fringe’s future and turning it into an elitist event.

Furthermore, the big festival giants have been allowed to privatise or seal-off many of Edinburgh’s most iconic and picturesque parks or public areas for profit. George Square, Bristo Square, Castlehill, Charlotte Square and parts of the Meadows are all cordoned off throughout August. Local Old Town residents are continually forced into pleading with lines of surly, newly arrived G4S security guards just for access to the streets where they live or work.

Worse still, it often takes until the following spring for the grass surfaces to be relayed and recover from the pounding that turns the beautiful spaces into something resembling a particularly wet Glastonbury. The Festival also puts undue strain on public services and leaves the city covered with litter for days or even weeks afterwards. Comfortably profiting, the corporate giants leave the party, leaving the locals to deal with the collective hangover in September.

The Festival is still a unique, magical event that brings people from all over the world to Scotland’s capital. However, the slow creep of corporations branding and monetising aspects of it is eating it from within. The rampant profiteering is also suffocating the city, negatively impacting year round residents.

Venice was turned into a lifeless museum city through unregulated free-for-all tourism. We must not allow the same thing to happen to Edinburgh. 

Alan MacLeod (@AlanRMacLeod) is an Edinburgh native and a journalist at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

 
 
 
 

The Tory manifesto promises to both increase AND decrease the rate of housebuilding

Housing secretary Robert Jenrick. Image: Getty.

In his 2014 Mansion House speech, the then-chancellor George Osborne expressed with uncharacteristic honesty the motives at the heart of how the Conservatives see British housing politics: “The British people want our homes to go up in value, but also remain affordable; and we want more homes built, just not next to us.”

Five years later these contradictions remain unreconciled and present in their manifesto, which contains two different and contradictory – but clearly extensively targeted and focus-grouped – sets of policies.

The Conservatives have two housing targets. The first is to make significant progress to hitting “our target of 300,000 houses built a year by the mid-2020s”. The second is their aim to build “at least a million new homes” during the next parliament, which implies a target of 200,000 homes a year. This is not only 100,000 lower than their initial target but also lower than the current rate of housebuilding: 213,660 new homes a year. They have therefore implied at separate points in the same manifesto that they intend to simultaneously increase and decrease the rate of housebuilding.  

There are similar conflicts in their approach to planning. They intend to make the “planning system simpler” while simultaneously aiming to introduce community-led design standards for development and planning obligations to provide infrastructure for the local community.

None of this is unsurprising, The Tories don’t seem to know if they want to build more houses or not – so of course they don’t know whether they wish to make it easier or harder to do so.  

Politicians like obfuscation on housing policy to placate NIMBY voters. Take for example prospective Conservative MP and ‘environmentalist’ Zac Goldsmith’s crusade to save treasured local car parks. The manifesto can equally be accused of pandering to NIMBY instincts, protecting their shire voters from all housing, including ones they might actually need or want, by promising to protect the greenbelt.  

Instead, Conservatives intend to foist development on Labour-leaning inner-city communities and prioritising brownfield development and “urban regeneration”. This requires massive, infeasible increases in proposed density on brownfield sites – and research by Shelter has shown there are simply not enough brownfield sites in cities like London. Consequently, it is not clear how such a policy can co-exist with giving these inner-city communities rights on local design. Perhaps they intend to square that circle through wholesale adoption of YIMBY proposals to let residents on each street opt to pick a design code and the right to turn their two-storey semi-detached suburban houses into a more walkable, prettier street of five-storey terraces or mansion blocks. If so, they have not spelt that out. 

Many complain of NIMBYism at a local level and its toxic effects on housing affordability. But NIMBYism at the national level – central government desire to restrict housebuilding to make house prices rise – is the unspoken elephant in the room. After all, 63 per cent of UK voters are homeowners and price rises caused by a housing shortage are hardly unpopular with them. 


There is anecdotal evidence that protecting or inflating the value of homeowners’ assets is central to Conservative strategy. When George Osborne was criticised for the inflation his help to buy policy caused within the housing market, he allegedly told the Cabinet: “Hopefully we will get a little housing boom, and everyone will be happy as property values go up”. More recently Luke Barratt of Inside Housing noted that most Conservatives he spoke to at the 2018 party conference were scared “they’d be punished by their traditional voters if the values of their homes were to fall”. He was told by a Conservative activist at the conference that, “If you build too many houses, you get a Labour government”.

But the senior figures in the Conservative Party are painfully aware that the continuing housing shortage presents major long-term problems for the Party. As the manifesto itself acknowledges: “For the UK to unleash its potential, young people need the security of knowing that homeownership is within their reach.” Perpetual increases in house prices are incompatible with this goal. The problem has greatly contributed to the Conservatives’ severe unpopularity with a younger generation priced out of decent accommodation. 

Equally, there is increasing evidence that ‘gains’ from rising house prices are disproportionately concentrated in the south of England.  The differences in housing costs between regions greatly reduce labour mobility, suppressing wage growth in the north and midlands, which in turn leads to greater regional inequality. The policy of coddling southern homeowners at the expense of the economic well-being of other regions is a major long-term stumbling block to Conservative desires to make inroads into the ‘red wall’ of Leave-voting labour seats outside the south.

Before dealing with the issue of where housing should go, you must decide whether you want to build enough housing to reduce the housing crisis. On this issue, the Conservative response is, “Perhaps”. In contrast, even though they may not know where to put the necessary housing, the Labour Party at least has a desire in the abstract to deal with the crisis, even if the will to fix it, in reality, remains to be seen. 

Ultimately the Conservative Party seems to want to pay lip service to the housing crisis without stopping the ever-upward march of prices, underpinned by a needless shortage. Osborne’s dilemma – that the will of much of his party’s voter base clashes with the need to provide adequate housing – remains at the heart of Conservative housing policy. The Conservatives continue to hesitate, which is of little comfort to those who suffer because of a needless and immoral housing shortage.

Sam Watling is the director of Brighton Yimby, a group which aims to solve Brighton’s housing crisis while maintaining the character of the Sussex countryside.