Edinburgh Fringe A Huge Success: That Calls For A New Quango AND Tourist Tax

Edinburgh Fringe performer
Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

Tax it and they will still come? We might be about to find out if that is entirely possible – or not. A new quango is being mooted to raise millions of pounds through a ‘festivals tax’ in Edinburgh, driven by one of the city’s major promoters.

Charlie Wood, director of one of the biggest Fringe producers Underbelly, who also is also behind the capital’s Christmas season, is leading the call for the inbound tourism impost. He wants the revenue stream to ensure the future of the world famous Fringe and mainstream Edinburgh festivals.

According to the Scotsman, Mr Wood envisages an arms-length trust to have sole custody of the funds raised although he conceded the Labour/SNP-dominated City of Edinburgh Council might still “have representation on a festivals trust”. He said:

“Future funding is a big issue for the festival and year-round arts in the city at the moment. It is going to come massively under threat in the next few years because of likely cuts from the council, Creative Scotland and Arts Council England.

“I do think some form of tourism levy should explored. A mandatory scheme would require some form of legislation at Holyrood, but I don’t see why Edinburgh can’t do it on a voluntary basis so that hotels, restaurants and the retail sector can sign up for it at their own choice.

“I would hope the business community would understand the benefit the festivals bring to Edinburgh. I think this would be fair preferable to carving off a small percentage of rates.”

Mr Wood does not propose trimming the festival size so that it stays within its current budget and lives within its means. This is despite there being no shortage of largesse to go around already.

In 2011 a report into the benefits of Edinburgh’s year-round festivals suggested they are worth more than £250m to the Scottish economy. The study said festival tourism – at £261m in 2010 – was worth more than golf tourism to Scotland.

The report found Edinburgh festivals were worth five times as much as single events such as Glastonbury.

Still, taxation is viewed by members of the already well subsidized performing arts community as the way to start a new governing body and, understandably, not everyone is happy.

William Burdett-Coutts, artistic director of Assembly Theatre, told the newspaper the tax imposition would be a very hard thing to undertake. He said: “On a practical level, I think this would be really tricky to try to introduce.

“People have raised this kind of thing many times before and never managed to pull it off. Whether the city has the capacity and the legal responsibility to achieve it, I don’t know.

“A lot of people in Edinburgh do care about the festivals. Having the capacity for businesses and hotels to sponsor something is probably a good thing, as long as it’s not too draconian.”

Outside of a levy on tourists, other possible models could include a levy on hotel, bar and restaurant bills, or a business improvement district-style scheme where firms would pay extra rates on condition that cash raised is ringfenced for festivals and events.

Some festivals, such as the Fringe, and arts venues already raise funding by asking ticket buyers to make an additional donation when making a purchase.

The Guardian, for one, seems to be on board with the festivals tax idea. We learned that last Saturday when it published a blog under the headline “The business model for the creative industries is broken” and writer Patrick Collinson lamented the fact that hotels and service providers made a profit at Edinburgh.

He asked: “How can we transfer some of the wealth grabbed by, say, hotels in Edinburgh and hand it to the people who generated it? A city-wide tax on hotels and restaurants during the festival, the money redistributed to performers?”

Yes, of course, a new tax. That is bound to fix everything.

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