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In October 2023, Edinburgh Council’s Development Management Sub-Committee consented Assembly Festival Ltd’s installation of a Spiegeltent for use as a performance space in St Andrew Square Gardens (23/04199/FUL).

Santa’s Stories was to operate as part of Edinburgh's Christmas 2023.

It would: be erected from 6 November; run from 18 November to 6 January 2024; be gone by 14 January 2024.


A few stick-in-the-muds had earlier raised objections.

The Cockburn Association worried about – among other things – inadequate information on access arrangements, potential impacts on a soft landscaped area, event creep and increased footprint.

Edinburgh World Heritage noted that, ‘Through the introduction of structures into this importantly uncluttered historic space alongside physical wear, the proposals would constitute some harm to the OUV [Outstanding Universal Value] of the World Heritage Site.’ Like the Cockburn, it favoured dispersing festivals more thinly across more parts of the city.

Two members of the public claimed the event risked compacting soil around tree roots and damaging trees above ground during set-up and takedown.

To some, though, it all seemed a very minor storm in a very small teacup. Just look at the proposed site plan which AFL submitted in support of its application.

Site plan

Nothing to worry about

Planning officials were not perturbed. After all, Environmental Protection had concluded that ‘The application proposes to site a tent within St Andrew Square gardens over the festive period. The activities are likely to be controlled by an Entertainment licence.

‘Therefore, Environmental Protection offers no objections to the application.’

Quite how an Entertainment licence could protect the environment was unclear to sceptics, but no matter.

Planning officials insisted the erection of ‘a small Spiegel tent in the south east corner of St Andrew Square’ would cause only a ‘little harm’ for a short period to the setting of neighbouring listed buildings and the conservation area. The effect on the OUV was ‘not considered significant’.

Crucially, officials deemed that likely economic benefits outweighed temporary adverse impacts.


Trees and soft landscaping

AFL did not submit a tree-plan for the Gardens until four days after the deadline for public comments had passed. It seemed almost an afterthought.

Officials made no comment about AFL’s failure to locate this event on hardstanding somewhere else. Indeed, they were unconcerned, later reporting: ‘The current site area occupies a small area of the gardens and therefore the soft landscaping restoration/remediation will be minor at the end of the decommissioning phase.

‘The effects are reversible and not considered to be significantly detrimental to amenity. The restoration of the area is a matter for the applicant and the owner of the site who in this instance is Essential Edinburgh.’

In fact, Essential Edinburgh is not and never has been owner of the site, and Spurtle has long had misgivings about the Council and EE’s delegated management of the space since it opened to the public in 2008. Amusingly, EE’s own website describes St Andrew Square Gardens as ‘pristine’ and a ‘haven’. See the foot of this page for some of our previous coverage.

It is fair to say that neither Essential Edinburgh nor Council officers appear to regard the gurgling quagmire which follows overuse of St Andrew Square Gardens in winter with the same seriousness locals do for months afterwards.

Back to the present

Officials stated, ‘The proposal with the conditions attached fully addresses the material considerations’ of objectors.

How these conditions – stipulating only the time-span of the tent, its daily operating hours and date of removal – would address material considerations about, among other things, detrimental impacts on soft landscaping, tree protection areas, high-value trees, wildlife and polluting power-generation, was not explained.

Officials had asserted elsewhere only that damage could be repaired without saying how or within what timescale.

Now, various people agreed or disagreed with the applicant’s claims, officials’ recommendations and councillors’ approval of them.

But no-one doubted they related to the erection and operation of a ‘small Spiegeltent in the south east corner of St Andrew Square’.


Aye, but …

Without further planning applications or additional planning consents – what we’ve ended up with here is this.

St Andrew Square Gardens

The situation is complicated by the fact that four of the installations (asterisked below) are unconnected with Edinburgh’s Christmas 2023. Three of these form part of the Social Bite charity's Festival of Kindness. Nobody we’ve heard from takes issue with the admirable aims of that initiative – to raise awareness and secure funds and essential items for people experiencing homelessness.

Nor have we heard objections to Edinburgh's Jewish community celebrating an important festival of their own. 

The frustration of some observers is that these additional structures and uses join others in appearing to have bypassed Planning altogether. And although individually quite modest in scale, collectively they combine to put the Gardens at further risk.

We started with consent for a Spiegeltent but now also have …

A Letter Writing Station.


Nine boxes.




Ancillary huts close to trees and not configured as shown on the site plan.


Spiegeltent loos where none were shown on the original site plan …


and unconsented photo opportunities to relieve queue stress.

picture frame

A tent* associated with forthcoming Hanukkah celebrations, likely bringing footfall close to trees.

hanukah tent

A NestHouse,* overlapped on two sides by tree branches.


A storage hut.*


An illuminated plastic tree.*

Fake tree

Not to mention …

Acres of soggy red carpet smothering the grass.

In other words, just the kind of event creep and increased footprint warned against by the Cockburn Association back in October.

Little resemblance

This odd jumble far outstrips the proposal described by Assembly Festival Ltd, supported by officials and consented by councillors.

It comprises not one ‘small Spiegeltent’ but multiple incongruous structures, most of which appear to have received no prior public, bureaucratic or political scrutiny. 

It’s all depressingly reminiscent of how Underbelly repeatedly failed to secure planning permission for Christmas Markets in East Princes Street Gardens in 2018–20.

St Andrew Square Gardens were never designed or intended as a space for high-footfall public entertainment. Allowing such usage, particularly in winter, will always result in damage.

It may be that the social benefits of this year's additional structures outweigh their disfiguring effects on a fragile city-centre green space. But resolving this equation merits an announcement first, timely public consultation, formal consideration and accessible records of decisions afterwards.

In Spurtle's view, it's just not good enough that such matters are nodded through by who-knows-whom in a process (which facilitates temporary structures operating for up to 28 days) conducted entirely behind the scenes.

Got a view? Tell us at and @theSpurtle and Facebook 

Previous coverage of St Andrew Square Gardens

September 2014: Snapped up, yet again

December 2014: Death by a thousand pees

November 2014: High hopes for bright lights

April 2015: Are you sitting comfortably?

July 2015: Give us back our grass!

November 2015: Railing about railings

December 2015: Small victory for 'tranquil oasis'

December 2015: How St Andrew Square was meant to be

December 2015: Design principles too woolly to protect world heritage

February 2016: Sticking it to the capital

February 2016: Those stick-figures explained

March 2016: Civic spaces stuck in the mud

April 2016: Time to add a little love

November 2016: Root and branch problems in St Andrew Square

May 2017: Are you sitting comfortably?

May 2017: Hooray, it's horrible!

September 2017: Praise for festive improvement

October 2019: Tree health still a concern