Rising accommodation costs are ‘grim reaper’ for festivals, says Fringe boss

A “strategic approach” to dealing with rising accommodation costs in Edinburgh is needed, the boss of the world famous Edinburgh Festival Fringe has insisted, branding soaring bills in the capital as being the “grim reaper”.

Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society, complained about the “dreaded rising cost of accommodation in Edinburgh”.

Ms McCarthy spoke out as she told MPs on Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee that artists and venues involved with the Fringe were still suffering financially as a result of the Covid pandemic.

The event boss said: “There is no one across the Fringe landscape who is not still in a recovery position, not still carrying debts and deficits from just surviving Covid.”

Speaking about the rising costs that performers and others have to pay for accommodation in the city, Ms McCarthy said: “That is definitely my grim reaper at the moment, and I think we need an Olympic response.”

Earlier this year, Festivals Edinburgh, which brings together the bosses of the city’s various festivals, warned they were facing  an “economic shock” as a result of new short-term letting regulations.

Ms McCarthy said while they were “very supportive of the short term lets legislation” – which involves new licences having to be awarded for properties rented out on a short term basis – she added it had “unintended consequences – particularly for artists”.

She said: “It is something that we need a strategic approach to address in a real way if we are to continue to host such a major event every year.”

Edinburgh’s famous festival season attracts thousand of performers and tourists to the city in August (Jane Barlow/PA)
Edinburgh’s famous festival season attracts thousand of performers and tourists to the city in August (Jane Barlow/PA)

Her comments came as she told MPs that both the Scottish and UK Governments could do more to help the festivals, which attract tens of thousands of performers and tourists to Edinburgh in August.

Ms McCarthy said: “I think there is still huge opportunity both to invest in the festivals locally, because at the minute I think we all operate on shoestrings, we all operate on a huge amount of good will.

“Our marketing budgets are miniscule and yet we have these global reputations. There is an enormous amount the Scottish and UK Governments could do to promote the festivals overseas.”

Meanwhile, Francesca Hegyi, the chief executive of the Edinburgh International Festival, said this was the first year they had received financial help from the UK Government – despite having being founded in 1947.

She said: “In the last eight years, we have 90 different instances of foreign governments investing in us, but the same isn’t said for Scottish Government colleagues or our UK Government colleagues.”

She described the summer festivals in the capital as being “enormous”, describing them as being “second only in size to an Olympic Games” – but adding that unlike the sporting tournament they happen every year.

Ms Hegyi told MPs: “If you think of the effort that goes into staging a Commonwealth Games or even Eurovision over the weekend, it is sort of taken for granted we will happen every single year.”

With some locals having voiced concern about the impact the festivals have on the capital, she conceded there was an “uncomfortable relationship” between the events and local government.

But she insisted: “We all need to get around the table and work out what is a sustainable future, including sustainable tourism for Edinburgh and for the festivals.

“Because if we don’t, some of the festivals won’t be there in the next five years.”

In February, Festivals Edinburgh voiced fears that the introduction of licences for Airbnb-style lets could result in a third of the overall Fringe programme being lost.

In its written submission to MSPs, it noted the Fringe Society had made the “conservative estimate” that a third of its programme for 2024 could be lost with this “representing a minimum of £30 million in additional economic impact and nearly 700 FTE (full time equivalent) jobs in the first year alone”.