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Edinburgh council kept Christmas market safety fears secret from public

Safety fears over Edinburgh’s controversial Christmas market were hushed up by both the city council and events organiser in the days before it opened to the public.

Emails released through freedom of information laws showed former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson called for assurances over public safety four days before it opened.

Visitors flocked to East Princes Street Gardens in the Capital on November 16 – but a completion certificate for the event’s platform was only issued on November 15.

Underbelly boss threatened to ‘cancel Hogmanay’ over Edinburgh council concerns

The Edinburgh Evening News reported Edinburgh MSP Ms Davidson was demanding answers from the City of Edinburgh Council, which outsources the market to events organiser Underbelly.

An email sent to her by the council’s director of place, Paul Lawrence, said: “The Christmas market will not open without all relevant safety certification, including a building warrant.

“Discussions are ongoing regarding compliance with the submitted designs and council officers are conducting a site inspection today.”

On November 6, social media users shared pictures of thin planks of wood supporting scaffolding – the same day Underbelly boss Charlie Wood threatened to pull the plug on both the market and Hogmanay events.

At the time, Underbelly insisted ‘the installation in the East Gardens is safe’ – although David Givan, a service manager in the council’s planning and building standards department, wrote to David Watson, Underbelly’s head of production, raising concerns.

Mr Girvan wrote: “From what we have seen from photographs on social media it appears that (at least some) of the scaffolding support structure has not been constructed in accordance with the warrant drawings.”

But the council also tried to assuage concerns by saying that an application for a building warrant demonstrated “compliance with the regulations” and was “currently being assessed”.

Emails released through freedom of information laws show that privately, relations between the two parties were fraught amid safety concerns.

On November 7, Mr Girvan wrote to Underbelly boss Mr Woods again – warning “it is essential that you address any of the requirements that [officer] sets out”.

Mr Givan added: “At present, works are being carried out without a building warrant and without planning permission.

“I consider that the steps I have set out above and in my email to David Watson of yesterday to be very reasonable given these circumstances.”

And an internal email sent to council staff by a senior officer warned: “Again, no compromise on trees, building warrants or wider public safety.

“This thing cannot open unless all professional staff are in agreement that it is safe.”

Councillors have called for greater transparency.

Green councillor Claire Miller deemed it a ‘fiasco’ and added: “Even as an elected member of this Council, with my access to council staff and information, it has been incredibly hard to piece together what’s happened, so I can only imagine how baffling it must seem to members of the public.

“I’m already thinking ahead to this year’s festive events, and I’m asking the Council administration and officers to ensure we completely avoid a repeat of this fiasco, with totally clear and accountable decision-making processes.”

And Lib Dem councillor Hal Osler said: “There is nothing about this in any way shape or form that is putting anyone in any good light.

“What I would like to see is total clarity and understanding of what happened and who knew and why so we can make sure this does not happen again.

“It is extremely disappointing because I expect a truthful response from officers and I don’t expect people to be economical with the truth.

“You can understand why residents are losing faith in the council because so am I.”

A spokesman for the City of Edinburgh Council said: “There was an ongoing dialogue between the department and the applicant to make sure the structures were safe and fully compliant before the market opened to the public.

“Any concerns raised were fully checked and actioned as part of this process.

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“We were clear throughout that the site would not open under any circumstances until all necessary conditions had been met.”

An Underbelly spokesman said; “Safety is always Underbelly’s first priority.

“The structure in East Princes Street Gardens was built and completed in accordance with its specification, and as agreed with the council’s engineers and Underbelly’s independent engineers, and received a building warrant in the proper manner.”

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