MORE DETAIL TO COME ON ARM'S-LENGTH MANAGEMENT OF NEW BANDSTAND VENUE
Councillors yesterday took a first step towards transferring certain management functions in West Princes Street Gardens to an arms-length external organisation.
Members of the Culture & Communities Committee voted to accept the recommendations of a report (Item 8.5) which will progress plans to make a charity responsible for the replacement Ross Bandstand venue and its surrounds.
The proposal will now be subject to further consultation and due diligence by officers. There was cross-party support for a Green amendment which, among other things, called for this period to be extended.
As we understand it, another report and RDT’s final business case will go before the C&C Committee in May, with an opportunity to ratify approval at a meeting of the Full Council about a week later.
Those concerned by the creeping privatisation of Edinburgh’s civic space fear the worst. The Council’s dealings with the private sector on major projects have not always gone well, and its competence in negotiating contracts is open to question.
In any case, some will argue that a local authority – even a council facing massive financial challenges – has no business giving away any local authority.
Spurtle has much sympathy with those views. However, in this instance we’re talking about establishing a charity, not a company.
We need to think pragmatically. Edinburgh has an unusual problem – the possibility of a brand-spanking-new asset which it can’t afford to maintain or (some argue) run responsibly given current budgetary constraints.
In these circumstances, there are merits to the incomplete arrangements outlined so far by the Council and Ross Development Trust (RDT).
At this point, we all need cool heads. The reality is different from the reportage in Friday’s Edinburgh Evening News, variously described yesterday as ‘very unfair’, ‘very unhelpful’, ‘inaccurate’, ‘very dispiriting’ and the cause of ‘appalling misunderstandings’ among the public and even some Council staff.
What is proposed
The RDT already has a £5 million philanthropic donation from Norman Springford in its back pocket. It must now seek a further £23 million from high-net-worth individuals, trusts and other organisations to realise wHY’s winning vision of a ‘butterfly pavilion’.
Potential donors seek assurances that the fabric, infrastructure and management of any such scheme will be maintained in the long term at a level which allows this asset to thrive.
In the language of the Report, this is explained as: ‘Such an approach would maximise the fundraising potential for the redevelopment and give potential donors clarity and reassurance on the operation of the bandstand post redevelopment’ (3.4).
Spurtle understands from a reliable source that this translates as potential donors do not want to see a premium project to which they have contributed subsequently run on a shoestring by politicians and officials financially impelled to extract maximum profit for minimum outlay.
The arm’s-length external organisation (ALEO) would be a non-profit making body, with revenues ring-fenced for maintenance of and reinvestment in West Princes Street Gardens ‘or in line with its charitable objectives’ (3.5.6).
All its activities would be subject to current legislation and Council policies. Importantly, ownership of the Gardens, and of the new Pavilion, would rest with the Council.
The ALEO would be a charitable body with equal representation on its Board for the Council, ‘independent representatives’ (e.g. Edinburgh World Heritage and the Cockburn Association) and (at least for an initial period after set-up) the RDT. ‘The exact composition is still to be determined and will be subject to legal approval’ (3.5.3).
This ALEO would take care of the Gardens’ day-to-day management, and have responsibility for any contracts and service agreements. The ALEO would choose and organise the programme of events. CEC would continue to maintain the Gardens.
Thumbs-up or thumbs-down?
Clear rules about who sits on the ALEO’s board are vital. Nobody wants Council stooges like Marketing Edinburgh or footfall-at-any-price entities such as Business Improvement Districts outnumbering or outgunning more locally accountable representatives.
If a fair, balanced, and self-confident board with a clear sense of its priorities could be established, then the ALEO could act as an effective guarantor of the Gardens’ upkeep, and a brake on inappropriate overuse.
Spurtle suspects it would certainly offer a more reliable brake than we could hope for if the venue were run exclusively by City of Edinburgh Council.
Spurtle welcomes explicit assurances emerging from the Report and yesterday’s Committee meeting about continued public ownership of the Gardens. We liked the commitment to continued and improved levels of access.
We would like greater clarity about: which elements of the Gardens and Pavilion will be maintained by the Council, and which by the ALEO; how any surplus revenue would be allocated in line with the ALEO’s ‘charitable objectives’.
Genuine public engagement
Establishing a mechanism to control West Princes Street Gardens, at arm’s length, in the genuine interests of the public, is essential. Spurtle strongly agreed with councillors who emphasised the need for the public to specify what kind of representatives they want to see on the ALEO board.
Consultation must include the public, in depth, repeatedly and across the city. There must be a realistic prospect of their input being noted and given traction in whatever decisions are taken next. We doubt there’s enough time in the schedule to achieve this. We would like these consultations to be further extended.
Spurtle accepts as genuine Director of Place Paul Lawrence’s assertions yesterday about the difficulty of framing the right questions and avoiding unbalanced responses. But it sounded, to our jaded Edinburgh ears, uncomfortably like bureaucratic inertia wrapped in principle. In the wake of Picardy Place, CEC really needs to lift its game to reassure disillusioned citizens. Another process of delay, obfuscation, decisions made in private, lip-service consultation, and finally presentation of a fait accompli will not serve.
The Report approved at Committee gave such assurances four times:
3.14 RDT will work with Council officers to finalise a fundraising strategy for the developments. It is intended that this strategy will include an opportunity for individual members of the public to contribute.
9.2 As the activities outlined in this report are progressed, appropriate consultation and engagement will be undertaken.
9.3 In addition, further public notification and consultation would be required in order to progress any amendment to the 1991 Act and the Court process under the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016.
9.4 It is also expected that any planning application coming forward would include consultation with the community prior to the submission of the application. There would also be a further opportunity for public comments during the formal planning application process.
An improved, beautified, more useful and accessible West Princes Street Gardens ought to be something we can all embrace.
Spurtle is creeping, inch by sceptical inch, to such a response.
But this project calls for extreme vigilance. Badger your councilors. Demand that further discussions be held in the light of day. Don’t for a moment stop scrutinising the fine details and the small print.