Leading Article: The Edinburgh Fringe is too high-falutin

NEARLY TWO decades ago, a pair of young men from Brighton called Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas tried out an anarchic busking act on a street during the Edinburgh Festival. Their improvised group quickly became a fringe favourite; later, the act evolved into an innovative cacophony of dustbin-banging, broomstick-twirling and matchbox-shaking known as Stomp. It has now been seen by more than six million people in 23 countries, not to mention the 200 million television viewers who saw the group at the 1996 Oscar ceremony.

But could this - the stuff of artistic dreams - ever happen again? For the vibrant Edinburgh Fringe, which nurtured Stomp, is in danger of suffocation by bureaucracy. Some of the more enterprising artists currently in Edinburgh have complained bitterly about the policing of the acts on the Royal Mile by the Fringe authorities. Having been handed by Edinburgh City Council the task of regulating the acts, the Fringe organisers have required registration of performers, the payment of insurance premiums and the booking of timed street slots.

Allegedly this will secure safer and more varied acts, but, as entertainers and spectators have discovered, it is draining the life blood from one of the world's most adventurous cultural institutions. The Bolivian street painter, Daniel Patino, has been told that he cannot paint on the Royal Mile. James McLean Macrae, a local piper, who has been told he cannot play where he likes, has pointed out that the restrictions do nothing for Edinburgh's poorer council tenants, who would otherwise be watching the acts for free. "Such people cannot afford to pay pounds 20 for some high- falutin show," he added.

There is every sign that the Fringe, whose gala performance was ostentatiously sponsored by Skoda, is indeed becoming high-falutin. It is bad enough that the London Underground fines buskers, but the Edinburgh Fringe's whole history is one of innovation in the arts; for it to act in the same way is inexcusable.

The insurance premiums are said to be beyond many performers' means. Leaving aside the fact that it is hard to recall too many serious street accidents in the history of the Fringe, it is surely not beyond the organisers of this successful event to take out insurance for the Royal Mile themselves on behalf of all performers. More important, excessive regulation in the arts stifles creativity and spontaneity. One result may be a Fringe of the Fringe, rather as the institutionalisation of off-Broadway spawned off-off-Broadway. But it would be better if the Fringe were allowed to return to its anarchic past. The city of Miss Jean Brodie has always suffered from a certain primness, but Miss Brodie herself would surely not have approved of these bureaucratic regulations; if nothing else, she stood for liberating the human imagination.