The UK and Scottish governments are locked in talks with council officials and senior Edinburgh festival staff to secure the future of the events after their cancellation for this year.
The negotiations are designed to secure the “cultural bedrock” of the city and agree more financial support for all five main festival organisations. They have forfeited millions of pounds in ticket revenue and fees because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The effect on the wider city economy is potentially calamitous, with the latest report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research suggesting that the international, military tattoo, Fringe, book and art festivals generate more than £1 billion a year.
Douglas McWilliams, an economist with the centre, said the figure was equivalent to between a third and a half of Edinburgh’s gross value added — the measure of total goods and services — for August. It is a crucial slice of annual income for businesses in the city.
A council paper passed on Tuesday, a few hours before the festival was formally cancelled, recognised the potentially disastrous knock-on effects.
The report confirmed that urgent negotiations had begun with government officials from both sides of the border to secure taxpayer money to pay experienced international festival and Fringe staff, many of whom work only for a few months over summer, and to maintain operations for the next 18 months or so.
Tommy Sheppard, SNP MP for Edinburgh East, said: “Keeping the cultural infrastructure intact is important for the city and country.”
He stressed the importance of additional public funds. “One of the problems for the international festival and the Fringe is they are not like the hospitality sector. They can’t say, ‘When this crisis is over we can start trading again and go straight back to normal.’ They can’t start trading until 2021. There will have to be some kind of bridge built to get them into the next financial year.”
Fergus Linehan, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, said it was settling the accounts for this year’s events and would offer “all artists and companies scheduled for our 2020 season a place in our 2021 programme”.
Some of the biggest Fringe promoters, including Assembly, the Pleasance and the Stand Comedy Club, said that they hoped to mount limited programmes this August if lockdown regulations are relaxed. So does the Free Fringe, which also plans to stage online performances free of charge.
Organisers of an entire event, the North Berwick-based Fringe by the Sea, said they still planned to go ahead with a ten-day programme in August, though they are “monitoring all the latest guidance from the government”.