Tickets only for the big Hogmanay crush

Iain Millar on Edinburgh's attempt to balance fun and safety on New Year's Eve
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The Independent Online
Edinburgh becomes a gated city on New Year's Eve: only revellers and party-goers - complete with special passes - will be allowed into its historic streets to celebrate Hogmanay.

Fears of a Hillsborough-like stampede, with dozens of people injured in the crush, forced the organiser, Pete Irvine, to limit numbers. The result, however, will be to turn the Royal Mile and its neighbourhood into an exclusive city of celebration for 180,000 people.

The four-day festival - "Edinburgh's Hogmanay" - begins tomorrow, with events ranging from a torch-light parade to street theatre to the "Swinging Sporran Ball" hosted by the Jimmy Shandrix Experience. The party comes to a head at 8pm on Wednesday when George St, Princes St and the Royal Mile are sealed off.

Pete Irvine is the director of Unique Events, the company who first took over the celebrations in 1993, after successfully staging a street party to coincide with the European summit held in the city a year earlier.

For a man who is effectively staging a one-night declaration of independence in the middle of Edinburgh, former pop promoter Irvine's laconic drawl belies the enormity of his task.

"If this is reasonably successful," he says, "it means that Edinburgh will have made a blueprint for controlling large numbers of people at public events that nowhere has ever done." He's not exaggerating.

With 50,000 attending in 1993, last year the city centre played host to more than 300,000 revellers. Collapsing railings at a concert at a main junction on Princes St led to a situation that one police officer described as being only seconds away from another Hillsborough.

More than 300 people needed casualty treatment, many for crush and spike injuries, so this year the city and the organisers are taking no chances. One hundred and eighty thousand passes have been issued to callers at the Hogmanay box office, to local residents and workers, and for distribution by hotels and pubs in the city centre. The passes are free but were all snapped up within days of going on offer. So, will some people be disappointed?

Probably, says Irvine, but "in a security and risk assessment world, major events are going to have do these things". However, there are fears of a black market in the fluorescent, bar-coded wristbands. Irvine believes that they already have a street value of pounds 10, a figure that will probably rise as Wednesday night approaches. He is also disappointed by the attitude of some pubs and hotels towards what is meant to be a free festival.

"I think it's bad that hotels are insisting that you stay for three nights and have racked up their rates to extraordinary amounts. Some pubs have 400 passes. We can't prevent what they're doing with them. We're not happy [at pubs charging for entry], we think it's profiteering, but then it's all part of the extraordinary economic benefit that ensues." That benefit translates into projected revenue of nearly pounds 30m for Edinburgh, and a further pounds 28m for Scotland as a whole.

As well as funding from the City of Edinburgh Council and Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise, the festival has also attracted sponsorship from Virgin and local brewer McEwans, who have put pounds 60,000 towards the building of 30 access gates around the perimeter of the party. All the gates have been designed by architects and structural engineers and will be decorated by artwork commissioned by the major sponsors.

Although the official line is that no one without a pass will be allowed inside the cordon, Irvine is more relaxed about security arrangements. Gate security, he says, "will be as firm, or as free, as the weather and the crowds dictate". But he was contradicted by a spokeswoman for Lothian and Borders police, who stated firmly: "If you don't have a ticket, please do not come. You won't get in."

Safety has been enhanced further by moving the main music concert - which caused last year's near-disastrous bottleneck - off the main thoroughfare and into the natural arena of Princes St Gardens. Tickets to see Glasgow rock band Texas perform into the new year will cost partygoers an extra pounds 12.

But it's not all about drunken shenanigans and pop decadence. For secular penance the brave, the mad or the simply still drunk can slew off their post-revels hangovers by taking part in the "Loony Dook" - a dip in the "inviting" waters of the Forth, below the rail bridge, on new year's morning. And while Edinburgh's most famous fire-and-brimstone spouting son, John Knox, was distressed by the thought of women preaching, the contemporary church is taking its first tentative steps towards staking a claim in the traditionally pagan celebrations. According to the Rev Andrew Anderson, co-ordinator of the ecumenical group Edinburgh Churches Together, Christians should take "every opportunity to share what we believe in the gospel". Mr Anderson has arranged to have volunteers at first aid posts to provide a "listening ear" to those who "have drunk too much or got very upset for whatever reason". There will be a midnight service at St Cuthbert's Church on Lothian Road - within the security cordon. "The organisers' view," he says, "is that the churches can contribute that kind of serious note to the celebrations which they feel is lacking."

If the exponential growth in attendance continues unabated, then security are going to have their hands full on Wednesday night, though many party- goers are expected to stake their place in the city centre before the 8pm instigation of pass-only entry. But expanding the area is not the answer, according to Irvine.

"People want to go to the centre of things to be together. You need an incredible attraction to get people to go elsewhere."

Irvine and his associates' bold experiment will be the blueprint for The Big One in two years' time - and they are anticipating a lot more than 180,000 to turn up for the start of the next millennium. And with the first elections for the new Scottish parliament due to be held in 1999, Edinburgh folk might remember their ancestors who defied "the auld enemy" when they got wind of the Act of Union in 1706 and laid siege to the residence of the Lord Provost. His successor might do well to pack his bags in good time. Short stays in Edinburgh, Travel

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