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The first full version of the festival following Covid restrictions is in full swing, but concerns about its direction of travel persist.

Outside the Royal Academy and National Gallery during Fringe

Anthony O'Neil Creative Commons Licence

Pitched as one of the greatest celebrations of arts and culture in the world, the Edinburgh Fringe’s return to full operation to celebrate its 75th anniversary has been eagerly awaited by performers and audiences alike.

But while those who have been able to attend have enjoyed a diverse range of shows and acts, the festival itself has arguably had a rougher time.

Ongoing concerns about inclusivity, conditions for performers and the sheer size of the festival have come to the fore again, with some commentators arguing a rethink of the fundamental purpose of the festival is required.


Even before it got underway, the Fringe found itself in hot water with comedians over the absence of an app widely considered to be vital for generating ticket sales, amid fears that audience numbers, and subsequent income, would be hit.

In response, performers' union Equity warned that the biggest threat to the future of the Edinburgh Fringe is performers being unable to afford to take part. 

Over the last two weeks, there has been little to suggest that this "threat" has been addressed in any meaningful way, with high costs proving a major hurdle for performers.

Accommodation woes

Many performers have been unable to attend at all, with rental costs in the Scottish capital scuppering their plans. Others have had to resort to extreme measures - taking to camper vans and tents to avoid sky high accommodation costs.

The high cost of accomodation is not exclusively an issue for Edinburgh - it is a problem across the UK. But the fact that large proportions of audiences travel to the city from outside of Scotland means performers at the festival are competing for the same pool of accomodation as the audiences coming to see them, driving up prices.

"Doing a show doesn't make financial sense in a hotel," Samantha Day, a comedian from Buckinghamshire staying on a campsite a 40-minute bus ride away from the festival told the BBC. "Even camping is costing me £43 a night so around £800 - £900 for the whole thing. So it's not nothing even to camp."

"There are a lot of comedians who are not even here because of the affordability issues and there are others camping because that is all they can afford."

"Because it is so expensive loads of the audience can't afford to stay in Edinburgh either so they're camping too," Ms Day said.

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe Society is aware of the issue and this year secured 1,200 rooms for £280 or less a week. But Chief Executive Shona McCarthy admits that this "isn’t enough". 

"Increased short-term accommodation costs have increased exponentially across the UK, and Edinburgh is no different," she said. 

"It is incredibly expensive and I do know how much of a barrier this is to participation at the fringe.”

According to the most recent impact study for Edinburgh Festivals, which looked at 2015, combined audiences came to more than 4.5 million - with the Fringe accounting for more than half of that with ticket sales in excess of 2.4 million. 

All this resulted in a combined £313m worth of additional tourism revenue for the Scottish economy each year, supporting 5,660 full-time equivalent jobs in Edinburgh and a further 6,021 across the rest of Scotland.

So a huge boon to the Scottish economy. Yet the Scottish government this month approved plans to restrict short-term letting of accomodation in Edinburgh. While laudable in its aim to provide long-term housing for city residents, the move is likely to exacerbate the situation for performers and festival-goers.

“I recognise the important role which short-term lets play as a source of flexible and responsive accommodation for tourists and workers, which brings many benefits to hosts, visitors and our economy," the Scottish Government's Housing Secretary Shona Robison said.

"However, we know that in certain areas, particularly tourist hot spots, high numbers of lets can cause problems for neighbours and make it harder for people to find homes to live in."

'Too white'

The cost of both accommodation and of performing at a venue have stoked fears that the Fringe is making little progress in terms of inclusivity at a festival that has previously been described as "too white" and "middle class".

Veteran comedian Frankie Boyle says that while the Fringe has produced “a lot of great comedy”, it is a “very middle class thing” and unrepresentative of the larger comedy landscape.

“Think of how much more it could be if it was democratised, if you actually had voices from all the different parts of the country, if you actually had a proper representation of class and race,” he said in a BBC documentary on the Fringe.

Speaking about the huge financial losses made by many performers at the festival, Boyle said: “That needs to change if you’re going to have any kind of representation or if this is going to be worthwhile."

Meanwhile, actor Brian Cox fears for the talent pipeline.

“We have to be sensible about it and maintain the impetus and how the festival works as a conduit for talent, particularly young talent," he told The Guardian.

"If they get squeezed, we’re going to lose something very vital. What is essential is the essence of the festival.”

Sheer size

Arguably the Fringe's current problems are a direct result of it's own success.

This year, the fringe festival will feature 49,827 artists from 58 nations performing in 3,171 shows in a full event schedule that began on 5 August and runs until 29 August.

Since 1986 the number of shows has more than tripled (from 959), and audience numbers have seen a sixfold rise.

The sheer numbers now involved in attending and performing at the festival places a huge strain on a city with a population size of less than 550,000. It is little wonder that costs have soared.

Achieving change

The Fringe Society appears prepared to take action, in June launching a plan to become "more inclusive, fair and sustainable".

The overall vision "to give anyone a stage, and everyone a seat" has been laid down in order to "inspire everyone to pull in the same direction for the next 75 years".

To achieve this, it has set out six Fringe Development Goals. Among the commitments is a pledge to source new income streams, sponsorship and investment to support Fringe artists, particularly those who face the greatest barriers.

It will also create a board-level Venue Funding Committee tasked with ensuring affordability for artists is central to delivery and decision making, meaning artists can be offered the best deals possible.

And it will work with citywide partners to "unlock affordable accommodation", with the intention of doubling the number of affordable rooms for artists by 2024 and tripling it by 2027.

“We want the Fringe to remain the world’s premier performing arts festival and we can only do that if it keeps pace with change in the city, in the country and in the sector," Shona McCarthy said.

"The modern scale of the Fringe has had an impact on its accessibility. It has enjoyed years of growth and now is the time to ensure that size does not come at the expense of creative freedom or inclusivity. We want the next 75 years to be defined by the quality of the Edinburgh Fringe experience, not the scale."