What The Dickins: A Tale Of Edinburgh City

The Crisis Threatening The Future Of The Edinburgh Festival

In August 2019, I’ll have been organising accommodation for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for 21 years. 21 years! Crumbs, it’s a long time to have been doing the same thing, year in year out.

My summers (well actually, quite a lot more of the year than that…) revolve around The Edinburgh Festival. Luckily, this absolutely extraordinary and magical thing, and all the brilliant people which make it possible, still gives me a complete buzz, 21 years on. I’ve had some of the best moments of my life at The Edinburgh Festival and think there’s no better place on earth in August than Edinburgh. I’ve always felt proud to do my small bit to be part of making it happen, but I’m feeling very concerned about what I’m seeing at the moment and therefore the future of The Fringe. Here’s why.

Edinburgh’s elasticity was a key to the success of The Fringe

In 1998 when I picked up the phone and made some cold calls about accommodation to Karen Koren at the Gilded Balloon and Kath Mainland and Mary Shields at Assembly, the world was a very different place. There were no websites or digital photographs back then and in many ways life felt much simpler. Since the Edinburgh International Festival and The Edinburgh Festival Fringe both started back in 1947, Edinburgh’s ability to be elastic and absorb extra people in August is one of the key aspects to why Edinburgh’s summer festivals have been able to thrive like and grow as they have. But for the first time that elasticity is threatened. And that’s got to threaten the future of Edinburgh’s Festivals.

 

It’s not just shows that are sold out – accommodation for the festival is too.

Threats to the future of Edinburgh’s Festivals

The threat is two-fold – supply and greed – and there’s a connection between them. The biggest impact on supply is due to recent changes to Scottish tenancy legislation. In December 2017, the short assured tenancy was abolished in favour of the Private Residential Tenancy or PRT. For decades there had been a pattern in Edinburgh, especially around student housing and flats in great locations for the Edinburgh Festival. Edinburgh works as a venue for a huge festival because people often stayed in student accommodation, which was empty over the summer. Student leases tended to start in July and run for 12 months or in September running for 10 months. Students were then sometimes given permission to sublet or the owners took flats back for August to organise their own festival let. There was an end date to leases which gave clarity and the ability to plan ahead. Students knew when they signed the leases how long they’d be there for and my sense is that the system worked. This was also the case for other non-student flats in popular Fringe locations like the Old Town, Marchmont and Southside, which would be let for festival and holiday lets over the summer. Letting agents would advertise their student portfolio in December-February and then they’d know at that point if they were going to be available for the Festival in August.

Impact of Scotland’s new Private Residential Tenancy

Now with the PRT, there’s no end date to leases. 2019 is the first time that Edinburgh’s summer festivals have been impacted by the PRT as students signed leases in the summer of 2018 that had no end date. Letting agents wrote to students at the beginning of this year asking if they knew when they were leaving, but they didn’t reply. This meant that the student accommodation that normally becomes available to book for the Festival in January and February wasn’t available. Students tend to leave Edinburgh after exams in May. They now need to give just 28 days notice ahead of ending a tenancy, so many gave notice in early May. Their flats were then going to be available from June. May is way too late to be finding accommodation if you’re going to be performing in the Festival. Owners needed to work out if it was best to take their properties back from June to early September so they could do their normal Festival let in August. In the vast majority of cases, they’ve decided that does not make sense and they’d be making a financial loss if they did it. So now the pattern has changed to student leases now often starting in June. We spoke to a long term letting agent early this year about potentially marketing around 40 student properties that they have always let for the festival, but in the end none became available. And that’s just one example of what’s happened everywhere.

“I would normally book Festival accommodation in February/March.  This year I am still looking for two flats for Festival workers and it is not looking hopeful.  I tried to book the same flat I booked last year and the landlord wanted 30% more rent.  He said he was trying to make up the loss of rent for the month of July.  Festival workers cannot possible afford this sort of rent hike in a year. He has now rented to students for 12 months so it is not available at all.  Edinburgh hosts the largest arts festival in the world, but it is in danger of frightening performers, technicians and staff away if they have nowhere to live.”

– Fiona Burdett-Coutts, Assembly

The PRT doesn’t apply to all landlords though……

One very strange anomaly of the PRT and student housing is that it applies to private landlords, but not to the university’s own housing stock or any purpose-built student housing developments. This creates an unfair advantage for the university and purpose-built student housing sites and penalises private landlords. For private landlords who do need to use the PRT and students who rent from them, the pattern has just changed from leases starting in July and September to June. So the level of demand means that students will probably still need to rent for 12 months. But that new pattern no longer works for the Edinburgh Festival. It’s one of those cases of the laws of unintended consequences. The PRT and holiday/Festival letting don’t mix and the impact of the PRT on the future of The Edinburgh Festival is potentially calamitous.

Spiralling rents

The laws of economics say that when an item is in short supply, the price goes up and greed potentially kicks in. That’s happening to rents over the Festival. There are lots of owners who will accept reasonable rents, but of course, owners may try to get the most they can too. Guests working in The Festival are telling us they are finding rents being asked for flats in Edinburgh just too high and the recent trend of platforms charging on a per-night basis has pushed prices up further. We were contacted about two New Town homes at the weekend that are advertised on an online platform. Their agent had just dropped the rents by a third to £7,500 for a three bedroom flat and £5,500 for the two bedroom flat because they didn’t have any bookings yet. (As a comparison, at Dickins we’d be asking £4,650 for the 3 bedroom and £3,800 for the two bedroom.) People coming to Edinburgh to work in the Festival just can’t afford rents like this. Groups visiting Edinburgh for a few nights to see Fringe shows might be able to, but not if you need to be here for a month. But if performers, staff and agents don’t have places to stay that they can afford, then the knock-on effect will be far less shows for audiences to see. The biggest impact will be on larger theatre groups who find coming to Edinburgh very expensive anyway and normally stay in larger student flats.

Sense of panic about the lack of accommodation

We’ve been speaking to clients every day and there’s a sense of panic about where people are going to stay and what this means for the future of The Festival. By mid-June normally everyone coming to Edinburgh for the month of August would have their accommodation lined up. There would be the odd exception but this year, there are lots of people who don’t have anywhere to stay yet. I’m still seeing potential homes. I saw a four bedroom, just renovated Southside student flat last week that would be available in early July and perfect for the Festival. But because it would be very difficult to let in July, it’s better for the owner to rent it to students from early July and it won’t be available for the festival at all and other owners across the city are making similar decisions.

“I’ve been promoting shows at the Fringe for over 20 years from 50 seaters to 1000+ seaters. Trying to book accommodation this year has nearly broken me and is seriously making me consider not coming to the Fringe next year due to the stress and cost it is putting on myself and my performers.  Just 6 weeks out from the festival I still do not have accommodation for one of my key performers in Whose Line is it Anyway? who is travelling from America. And having the rest of the cast housed is costing me close to £20k for 3 flats.

The price hike in accommodation is just not fair and the actual lack of good accommodation is what will destroy the Fringe with people deciding not to go.
My budget for accommodation was 1/3 more this year and the actual state of the accommodation I have booked is worse than 10 years ago. Something seriously needs to change or be rectified otherwise Edinburgh will be pricing out all the performers and staff that help create, perform and
run the world’s biggest arts festival.”  

-Brett Vincent, Get Comedy

 

What does the future of the Edinburgh Festival look like?

The Edinburgh Festival will continue in some form of course, but how and in what form? In the 21 years I’ve been doing this job, this is the first time where I’m not sure what the future of The Edinburgh Festival looks like. I understand that there are conversations happening about whether the PRT is fit for purpose for private landlords of student housing. For The Fringe to be The Fringe the glorious range of talent, from school theatre groups to well-known comedian, all need to be able to come here or it just won’t be the same – it won’t be The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Its name as the world’s biggest and best arts festival will be in jeopardy and that would be an awful state of affairs.

If you’re interested in letting your home for the Edinburgh Festival, our post Successful Edinburgh Festival Lets – The Owner’s Guide has more.

7 Comments

  • A. Burgess

    August 7, 2019 at 1:37 am

    Yes,Dickins’ observations and conclusions are absolutely right.

    I also note the rise of purpose built blocks of student flats – `characterless, behind-the-Iron-Curtain style cheap boxes – all over the city, whose corporate owners are purposely protected by the new legislation, which has obviously and clearly been drafted to bomb out small private landlords, already registered properly and licensed, clean out of the business of letting to anyone during the Fringe, on a month long contract.
    I, for one, have been letting successfully for decades to students from all over the globe. I manage a very small number of flats myself, doing all my own paperwork, cleaning and the myriad of other things now you have to do to maintain a let at a decent standard. I can assure anyone thinking it’s easy money that, as for lots of self employed people in any business, the workload is overwhelming throughout the summer months, albeit more relaxed in the winter. Profits made in August go towards upgrades, replacing tired or broken furniture, furnishings, bedding, general maintenance and repairs. Owning part of an 1880s tenement building in Edinburgh involves continued structural maintenance/repairs and often chasing up reluctant residents for their share of the communal repairs which can be very frustrating and sometimes utterly fruitless. The Council is gradually relinquishing its share of any responsibility in adequately maintaining a tidy healthy urban stock of private housing, whilst grasping at every opportunity rising registration and licensing fees applied to the ownership of that stock. Costly health and safety measures continue to be rolled out in response to yet more failure, death and destruction in housing disasters in the public sector, hammering the private landlord doing his best to satisfy all the requirements, sometimes rediculous, of the H.M.O. I have had to rip out all my intumescent fire strips around my fireproofed doors and get my joiner back to replace them with intumescent firestrips WITH BRUSHES. Having been required to fit a yale lock on a cupboard door to a shelved space housing the electric meter, I then, on further inspection, very nearly had to alter the yale lock, ‘in case a very small person became trapped under a shelf in the cupboard while fetching out the hoover and, at the same time, the electric meter in the cupboard burst into flames, putting the very small person’s life in jeopardy. At the last minute, the HMO officer relented – for this year at least.
    These often random and inappropriate ideas place more and more mental and financial strain on the private landlord who has to pay, pay, pay for very little return. His taxes have steeply risen this past year and now, with the PRT, the pendulum has swung to the other side, profits hit right where it hurts. I have a beautiful large flat, ideal for Festival performers, empty since mid June, and right in the heart of Marchmont. Too late to find Festival performers and too early for the students whose loans don’t clock in until September, I’m not interested in nightly tenancies due to the likelihood of nuisance to nice neighbours – I have standards. However, I can see how landlords are being squeezed into the super- short let market – this is all part of a bigger plan to introduce planning legislation to net yet more undeserved cash for the local authority and Government. I am no conspiracy theorist yet this conspiracy is so obvious, so blatant in its disregard for hard working people running efficient little businesses, supporting other trades and businesses in the city, serving the student and wider population, driving the economy forward – the conspiracy to divert the benefits and rewards of all this hard work elsewhere is outrageous. I have had students phone me saying they cant come up with a deposit and rent after their courses finish in May for the summer because the next installment of their loan wont be payable till September. i’ve had returning performers phoning me in February hoping to secure their accommodation for August for the usual price I charge each year, only to be told that I dont know if their desired Victorian flat – the one with the high ceilings, elaborate cornices and acres of bedroom space, will be available for them in August – I wont know until the end of June and even then, it might be a No. But, I should assure them, they can always sign up now and secure themselves a snug little box, at vastly inflated prices, out of town in one of these modern student ‘halls of residence’; they’re all standing empty in the summer, coincidentally so, in time for the swell of visitors and performers in August.
    I always thought a property owner had the right at law to do what he liked with his property – within reason of course. But this fundamental right has been so eroded over recent years, ownership no longer feels like ownership – rather, it is an expensive management exercise on behalf of a State who pulls all the strings. The private landlord is actually doing the local Authority and Government’s jobs for them, at his entire cost. The former ‘Ownership’ is now the preserve of the Big Boys. Everyone stands to lose except the Big Boys and the Powers That Be. As the private landlords keel over and yield to the pressures on them, you’ll see the old tenements of Edinburgh disintegrating, being dismantled, bulldozed, the Festival imploding – there is already immense competition on the Fringe from the internet, where performers can gather acclaim without ever setting foot in Edinburgh – and now another nail in Scotland’s coffin, another own goal. Yet another thing that worked perfectly well being ‘fixed’, in such a way that it has to now be chucked. The Short Assured Tenancy, which worked perfectly well since 1988 at its inception, came into being as a result of legislation favouring the tenant to a ludicrous extent. Landlords fell like flies and hence the law had to be brought back into balance. The PRT crashes us all back 30 years to repeat the mistakes of that era all over again, the only difference being that this time, it may not be quite so easy to wrestle the gains back from the powerful jaws of the large property investors and their shareholders.

    Reply

  • Concerned of Tollcross

    July 10, 2019 at 11:00 am

    “Dickins
    July 9, 2019 at 6:32 am
    There are now lots of properties being let to visitors to Edinburgh rather than performers. They’re only here for a few days and can pay more per night than performers who are here for a full month……”

    This doesn’t actually answer the question of why landlords are choosing to charge more than prospective tenants can afford. If you are upset about performers not being able to afford to attend the festival your company should use its position within the market to advise landlords to charge only what performers can afford.

    Reply

    • Louise Dickins

      July 11, 2019 at 10:58 am

      That is what we do. Often owners contact us with what we consider to be completely unrealistic rental expectations and we let them know what levels we consider to be realistic.

  • Concerned of Tollcross

    July 8, 2019 at 9:23 am

    Why are Edinburgh landlords wanting to charge short-term tenants over £1000 per-week during the festival? If this is too much for performers and visitors to pay, why can’t the landlords simply charge them less?

    Reply

    • Dickins

      July 9, 2019 at 6:32 am

      There are now lots of properties being let to visitors to Edinburgh rather than performers. They’re only here for a few days and can pay more per night than performers who are here for a full month……

  • Richard H

    July 7, 2019 at 6:35 pm

    If we set up a situation in which housing was seen as a necessity instead of a profit-making engine, this wouldn’t be such a problem.

    Everyone talks about “supply and demand” in every conversation about housing, but we neglect to mention that the short supply of affordable housing is due to rent speculators sequestering everything affordable. Centering co-ops and land trusts and social housing, and making landlords get actually productive jobs again, is the only thing that will de-escalate this situation.

    Agreed that a city priced entirely for tourists will end up pricing out all the artists. That’d sure be a shame.

    Love,
    A long-time Fringe performer who’s nearly been priced out this year

    Reply

    • Dickins

      July 9, 2019 at 6:30 am

      Sitting behind this is years of failed housing policy. So many sites in Edinburgh have been used to build student housing blocks recently for example. None of our owners live off their income – they have ‘actually productive’ jobs or are retired. Then the Scottish Government introduced the PRT where tenants have to commit for 28 days but owners potentially for years and years. Many owners don’t like the inflexibilty of that. It’s too imbalanced, so lots of long term landlords entered the short term market. The laws of unintended consequences from badly written legislation is a theme in Scotland. Sorry you’ve found it tough this year.

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