Building officers at Edinburgh City Council have given Edinburgh’s Christmas organisers Underbelly a building warrant for its Christmas Market in East Princes Street Garden, two days before it is due to open.
The Christmas Market can open as planned at 1pm on Saturday, once final health and safety licensing is obtained.
The annual market has been under intense public and council scrutiny in recent days due to concerns about its growing footprint and the integrity and safety of the site’s infrastructure.
People voiced dismay about the size of the temporary Christmas Market and Fairground site as soon as the scaffolding started going up. The raised deck this year extends the length of East Princes Street Garden right up to the National Galleries on The Mound and is now on both sides of the railway.
People also raised fears about the safety of the scaffolding, posting images on social media of poles erected on a grass embankment in East Princes Street Gardens standing on wood blocks.
— Corstorphine Climate Action (@corstclimaction) November 4, 2019
Reacting to public concerns voiced on social media, Edinburgh City Council had considered moving the market to a hard-standing location elsewhere in the city. However, with only days until the market was due to open, the council decided to defer that decision to 2020's event.
Last year, over 100,000 people a day visited the Christmas Market and Fairground with one day seeing around 124,000 people.
There was footfall of over 2.5 million through East Princes Street Garden over the course of the Christmas Festival.
The fairground includes a Christmas Tree Maze, Helter Skelter, Santa Train and other rides. The 60m high Star Flyer and Big Wheel are also big attractions.
Due to its size, Waverley Bridge will be vehicle-free from 11am until 5pm from this weekend until the Christmas Market ends on 5th January.
The council moved to assuage fears that the market site will not open unless safe.
A spokesperson stated: “Discussions are ongoing with Underbelly about the structure and a Building Warrant application has been submitted and is currently being assessed. This includes a SER certificate from independent engineers who are Approved Certifiers of Design of Building Structures, which demonstrates compliance with the regulations. Building Standards and Public Safety teams are working with Underbelly to inspect the structure. The site will not open until all necessary conditions have been met.”
Adding to the furore, the council apparently did not enforce its own planning procedures, allowing Underbelly to make its planning application retrospectively. Due to the lateness of Underbelly's application, planning permission is expected to be granted for the site in early January, after the market ends.
Furthermore, it has also come to light that Underbelly did not have planning permission to erect the Christmas Market last year.
On 29th September 2014, Underbelly applied for planning permission (14/03915/FUL) for a 1.86 hectare site in East Princes Street Garden to “Erect ice rink, market stalls, Christmas tree maze, fairground rides, bar, box offices, associated site offices, stores and ancillary facilities.”
Planning permission was granted for three years “until 10 January 2018”, so last year's market seems to have taken place without planning permission.
The Christmas site has evolved over the years - the number of market stalls has grown to 163 stalls this year and the “Winter Wonderland” ice rink in East Princes Street Gardens has long gone. Another temporary, "elliptical" ice rink was erected at St Andrew Square for the Christmas festival from 2014 until last year.
The Christmas Market has been a commercial success for Underbelly, although how much of one we do not know, since Underbelly says its finances are confidential.
However, it will be surprising, if after this year’s fiasco, the Christmas Market site gets the go-ahead in 2020 in the same East Princes Street Garden location and, if it does, it’s unlikely it will be the same size.
Conservation groups have voiced concerns that the market diminishes the city.
The Cockburn Association has called for an independent review into the "multiple, systemic failures in the governance and management" of the Christmas Market:
“We state again, the Cockburn recognises the value to the City of such events such as the Christmas Market but has significant concerns about creep of commercialisation in our public parks and places. The structure erected here is so grossly out of keeping with previous events and is so incongruous in scale that it destroys the very character of the city which the operators are trying to exploit.”
Edinburgh World Heritage, the body responsible for maintaining Edinburgh’s World Heritage status, has also weighed in:
“We call for any intervention in Princes Street Gardens to be more sensitive to the exceptional environment of Edinburgh Old and New Towns World Heritage Site, and we support the decision of the City Council to explore alternative locations for the Christmas Market for next year.”
— Edinburgh World Heritage (@EdinburghWH) November 13, 2019
The beleaguered Underbelly has issued a number of public statements on its blog regarding the various issues surrounding this year’s Christmas Market:
Addressing safety concerns Underbelly said: “Fundamentally, safety is always our first priority and the installation in the East Gardens is safe. The design has been signed off and certified by independent engineers who are Approved Certifiers of Design of Building Structures and who have issued an SER certificate and it has also been agreed by the Council’s engineers. The installation has been designed in accordance with the appropriate codes to more than accommodate the capacities expected by Edinburgh’s Christmas through our busiest periods and in all weather conditions. The installation is also subject to a building warrant and will therefore be compliant with the Building (Scotland) Regulations.”
In response to criticisms about the scale of the temporary structure, Underbelly said:
“We appreciate the images of the build period have not been aesthetically pleasing but we can assure that the end result will be an event which both befits the environment and is sympathetic to it, as has been the case every time Underbelly has produced the event.”
Christmas Market opening times
Daily 10am - 10pm, except:
- 16 November: 1pm - 10pm
- 24 December: 10am - 8pm
- 26 December: 12pm - 8pm
- 31 December: 10am - 6pm
- 1 January: 12pm - 8pm