Is it true (as the Edinburgh Evening News want us to believe) that the closure of Calton Hill on Hogmanay is absolutely all about the council saving money? The council deny this, saying at every opportunity that the decision not to make this an official viewing area was made on safety grounds, and was made in discussion with all other agencies involved including Scottish Ambulance Service and Police Scotland.

There is also the revelation that there are tickets left for the street party, allowing critics of the hill closure to suggest that Edinburgh’s Hogmanay just want to sell more tickets. The event was a sell-out last year without the need for such a measure, so can that be true?

It is true that the council official who reported to Chief Executive Andrew Kerr on the proposed closure did mention money in just one line of his letter to Mr Kerr.

The letter said:

“While Calton Hill has been used as a viewing point for the Hogmanay fireworks for a number of years, it is not an official viewing area for the celebrations, and is used as a firing site for the midnight fireworks. Stewards are provided to secure the fireworks site, but the hill is unlit, is not an official viewing area and no facilities are in place to accommodate any audience (e.g. sufficient steward numbers, toilets, first aid, etc. Legislation and best practice require these measures at organised public events.). The budget challenges facing the Council mean there is no funding to make this an official site. In addition, assessments of current prevailing wind speed and direction indicate a very large area of the hill acting as a fall out zone for fireworks debris for Hogmanay.

Over recent years the number of people gathering on Calton Hill has substantially increased. Estimates now put this at a few thousand.  As a viewing area, Calton Hill is a specific concern because of its topography, the presence of fireworks (both firing and debris) and the growing number of people on the hill.  Given it is Hogmanay, alcohol consumption must also be a consideration.

Opening the hill will put additional burden on Police Scotland resources and require additional first aid provision on a night that already sees the emergency services highly pressured. If the weather is particularly cold or wet then risks increase further.

Taking all of the above into account, and the continuous assessment procedures in place to ensure crowd management and safety, the Edinburgh’s Hogmanay Core Group (comprising representatives from Council Public Safety, Scottish Ambulance Service, Police Scotland, Scottish Fire & Rescue Service and Unique Events) reviewed the site risks and arrived at the decision to close the Hill to the public.

There are other areas within the city centre from which to view the fireworks, including North Bridge where safety arrangements are put in place for the public. While the Street Party provides safe and managed city centre celebrations, North Bridge is also stewarded and has first aid provision to accommodate the public. The Meadows and Inverleith Park remain safe and popular sites for the public to view the fireworks.”

So is the correct interpretation of one sentence in this letter that the move was made all because of money, or is it truly a matter of concern for the health and safety of citizens and visitors?

There are those who feel so strongly about the closure that they have started petitions to persuade the council to open the hill to the public, saying that the council is acting like an over-protective nanny (It has always been an informal viewing area in the past). There are others so affronted by this restriction on their rights that they appear set to storm the barricades later this evening.

When The Edinburgh Reporter asked the Culture Convener Councillor Richard Lewis on Tuesday during the press briefing what the alternatives were to using Calton Hill he suggested North Bridge, Inverleith Park etc, where there will be stewards, and Pete Irvine of Unique Events said that the higher fireworks can in any case be viewed from all over the city.

The Culture Convener did concede that the decision, made last month, might have been publicised earlier than it was, but repeated that the reasons for it were all about health and safety.

Any decision involving the council does of course have to be viewed as part of a larger picture; in a climate of budget reductions, voluntary (perhaps compulsory) redundancies among council staff, and decreasing revenue budgets which affects all council departments and not just this one. What do we want the council to spend the money on? They have just held a three month long consultation on that very subject.

You can also watch our video interviews with the main conveners about the finances of their departments and the upcoming council budget to be agreed at the end of January (which the council say is made a little more difficult by the Scottish Government’s budget announced in December).

Would the council have been right to ‘find’ the money somewhere in their budget to enable Calton Hill to become an official viewing spot, and how much would it have cost anyway? There are many other draws on their finances, and prioritising spending on the growing population at either end of the age spectrum seems to be their main goal. Would it have been right to spend what might easily have been a six figure sum on opening the hill for a couple of thousand people for a few hours this evening?

The council has had a revenue budget of around £1bn to spend in the recent past,  but in the next financial year that total will be reduced by £126m and the council aims to make a further £15m of savings to allow it to spread the cuts over the next few year

The Chief Executive has now issued the necessary Section 11 notice which Malcolm Combe has been keeping an eye on as you can see below. This enables the council to close the hill from 7pm this evening till 2am on New Year’s Day.

What do you think?

4 COMMENTS

  1. You ask ” Would it have been right to spend what might easily have been a six figure sum on opening the hill for a couple of thousand people for a few hours this evening?”

    What a strange question. Why not ask, instead, why the sudden change, the expenditure on CLOSING the hill. Leaving it open would have been free. And if you think this isn’t, ultimately, about money, then I have to wonder how naive you really are.

  2. Thank you for your comment Donald. My point is that in the current financial climate would the council have been criticised for spending money on this?

    It would have cost an unknown sum to open the hill as an official venue. I agree it will cost money to steward the entrances to the hill for several hours this evening, but I understand from speaking to Sam Pryce of G4S the other day that there are already 600 G4S staff in the city.

    I have no idea how many will be deployed to this area, but (in my view) there is little likelihood of the expense of that being as much as it would be to officially set the hill up as a ‘venue’.

    I don’t think it is naive to believe what the officials are all saying: that it is a matter of safety concerns. Money has been mentioned certainly, but only in passing.

    Also it was not a sudden change as the decision was taken last month – the last minute part was in the announcement.

    Where will you be celebrating this evening?

  3. thanks for the reply Phyllis.

    I think the disquet with this decision really reflects a lack of trust which has built up between the people of Edinburgh and the council. Perhaps many years ago we would have believed that they really had our ‘safety’ at heart. Now, with so many civic spaces monetized and the celebrations turned into to a corporate spectacular, people resent this latest exclusion and doubt the reasons.

    Yes, the council would have been criticised for spending money on Calton Hill. But how much would a few portaloos and even temporary lights have cost? Not much more than they are spending to keep it closed.

    I don’t think it’s far fetched to see this as part of a long term plan to extract more profit from Calton Hill. And it’s safe to say that the interests of the ordinary citizen of Edinburgh won’t be central to these plans.

    Happy New Year to you! (wherever you will be. I’m staying in :))

  4. The hill has always been open as it is every other day of the year, as a free public space. There is no expectation of stewarding or lights or toilets. It is no different to the meadows or Inverleith Park. You’ve let the narrative be framed by the council’s talk of ‘official venues’ and associated costs. They spent money on security to close it.

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