Are the curtains finally opening on Edinburgh’s festivals and the city?

By Pratima Sambajee, Kendra Briken, Donagh Horgan and Tom Baum, University of Strathclyde

Edinburgh is a festival city constantly scrutinised and criticised by mutiple stakeholders in matters of city-planning, social exclusion, community ownership and overtourism. Residents, city officials, workers of all industries associated with festivals as well as the general tourism and hospitality industries, have experienced the city differently. The stage was set for a showdown concerning the value of the tourism economy, between city officials and disgruntled residents. A mounting debate around what is perceived by some as overtourism had reached fever pitch, following growing public opposition to entrepreneurial urban governance prioritising place commodification over citizen ownership. In recent years, a neoliberal backdrop had been revealed, exposing dark labour practices, workplace precarity and displacement in which the citizens of Edinburgh play only supporting roles. Once home to a thriving working class community, the festival city has been hollowed out as a skeleton for spectacle – a meeting point for numerous transient populations and impermanent urban dwellers. Relationships and bonds between stakeholders have weakened, meaning that suspicion often limits the spread of social capital and prosperity. Persistent and polarising poverty in Edinburgh is evidence of spatial and economic planning. The pandemic brought with it a unique opportunity to rebalance the economy of the festival city – an interval from the thundering hooves, and a recognition of the importance of shared space. However this is proving difficult due to the lack of granular data on tourism in Edinburgh.

The need for small cities like Edinburgh to remain competitive on the world stage, come in immediate conflict with more sustainable agendas focused on resilient place-based partnerships. Community ownership is important for placemaking-  and in planning for recovery and resilience – and can be difficult to cultivate in contexts where neoliberal urban governance necessitates a more reticent state. In fact the spatial development in Edinburgh would point to policy-making which cleared the city’s core of undesirable elements – and which continues to present a dramatis personae that masks forms of social exclusion and exploitation. The fallout from Brexit is slowly revealed on labour shortages in logistics and hospitality – the true extent masked by social distancing measures. Even before the formalities of Britain’s exit from the European Union were agreed, tourism bodies and sectoral associations warned of the particular risk to Scotland, whose hospitality industry relies heavily on migration from new accession states.  For those small businesses that have been able to weather the pandemic, resilience is built from the bottom up, and necessitates a wholesale engagement with the wider sector around Edinburgh’s hospitality workers – alongside other low-skilled employees.

For policymakers the picture is fuzzy, given the lack of granular data available on Edinburgh’s tourism workforce, and an absence of any real data on tourism’s impact at the neighbourhood level. Even if it were available, in informing the present circumstances, lots of big data has passed its expiry date – and cannot help us to predict an unknown future, only a complicated present. The period of austerity that followed the 2008 financial crisis, saw a rush to smart strategies to urban governance, many of which rely on the promise of big data to reduce city budgets and expenditure – and other top down approaches to small government. Not confined to the back office, technological innovation has also driven a Fordist reorganisation of the service industry reducing accountability and rights for workers. Previous crises have been the midwife of data-led transformation across all areas of society – the gig economy; the dark web and has set up multiple  barriers to transparent and open dialogue between and among stakeholders in a host of arenas. A reliance on data to guide policy, has reduced the capacity for agile responses to change, and increased the propensity for polarisation and paralysis. Within a constantly shifting context for recovery, some stakeholders are calling for less restrictions around opening up, while unions caution against risk to frontline staff. New questions are being asked around the quality of work, remuneration and on the sustainability of atypical and precarious work practices. Irrespective of a hostile immigration environment, Scotland’s tourism economy stands at a crossroads, where Edinburgh battles for its soul and identity  as a festival city.

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