IT is a question almost as old as the first posters for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, pasted up in Scotland's resplendent capital city in 1947: is the Festival getting too big?

Alongside another hoary old query – "Is there too much comedy in August?" – the question is a perennial one, an issue that heightens in intensity every summer, when Scotland's capital blooms like a desert flower to become the centre of the arts world, drawing a multitude of visitors, artists, companies and tourists from across the globe.

But this year, and when the Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), and then the Fringe and Book Festivals (EIBF) unveil their programmes in the coming months, the question is to be posed in a more heated context. This new and sometimes febrile atmosphere has been prompted by increasing questions over the sustainability of the continual growth of the capital's festival season, with some asking: how much Festival can one city take?

In June, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe will launch its 2019 programme, and it is likely that it will be bigger than last year, which itself came in at a record size: more shows, more companies, and more venues in Scotland's modestly-sized capital city. Overall, the city's Festivals draw 4.5 million audience members, and 6,000 full-time jobs. The economic impact is significant: worth £280 million to Edinburgh and £313m to Scotland according to BOP's 2016 study, figures themselves representing 19% and 24% increases on those reported in 2010.

It is not just the Fringe: each major August festival in Edinburgh is expanding. The Edinburgh International Festival has embraced modern music and last year made a decisive, if not necessarily permanent, move into Leith Theatre. Although the International Film Festival made the decision to move out of August altogether several years ago, and now takes place in June, the Edinburgh International Book Festival has expanded geographically, moving, albeit in relatively modest fashion, into the New Town's George Street, with a consequent rise in footfall.

However, the Fringe is the Big Bang that keeps on expanding: its 2018 programme had 3,548 shows, up from 3,298 in 2017, with performances up from 53,000 to nearly 57,000. If you go back 40 years, to 1979, there were only 625 shows. Last year, it issued 2.8 million tickets, a record, 5% higher than 2017. This year, it is on course, at the current rate of growth, to sell or distribute three million tickets.

Now questions are being asked if such unprecedented growth is happening at a price that Edinburgh cannot afford. The Fair Fringe campaign believe it is "unsustainable", and is a factor in what they regard as poor work and conditions for some festival workers.

The city council itself has, in recent papers, noted the challenges thrown up by festival growth. The issue is complicated and multi-layered: the Festivals are a success, and the envy of cities and countries around the world. The city also relies, financially, on them, and yet some feel it impinges on the quality of life of ordinary Edinburgh citizens. The seasonal impact of the Festivals is often conflated, too, with the broader issue of increasing tourism, and the rise of the "airbnb" economy. Others feel the centre of Edinburgh risks, with its year-round offer of festivals, becoming overly dominated by tourism, like Venice or Prague.

Those expressing doubts about an ever-increasing festival size, led by the ever-expanding Fringe, point to several concerns, including, but not restricted to: the environmental impact on the capital, the impact of the tourist economy on housing and land, the pay and conditions of workers at the Fringe – a campaign led by the Fair Fringe – overcrowding, and the transformation of public spaces, notably parks, into, albeit temporary, private ones.

One noted academic observer, and expert in festivals and large cultural events such as the Olympics, suggests the time may be coming for Edinburgh to pause for thought.

Dr Beatriz Garcia, director of the Institute of Cultural Capital at the University of Liverpool, an expert on cultural events including the Olympics, says there are dangers in continuous growth, and has some radical ideas to counter its "damaging effects".

While understanding that the Fringe is the Fringe: un-curated, a cultural free-for-all managed by the Fringe Society, she suggests future limits could be laid on its size by restricting the number of venues and truncating the running times of shows themselves, where Fringe shows become "more of a taster experiment".

She said: "It is not possible that it keeps growing at this speed. There is a beauty to it, what has happened in the last few decades, especially when we have been living in austerity and there have been so many cuts, that a festival that keeps growing is a positive story. But the thing is not to be so naive to think that this kind of extreme growth is not dangerous.

Garcia added: "There is a danger in ongoing continuous growth. There are concerns over quality, accessibility, and the balance in terms of the liveability of the city: so it is an important question. There is a moment when organisers should be thinking: is it now relevant to make certain adjustments. I do believe with Edinburgh Festivals we are reaching a point where do we think of growth as just positive in itself? That is dangerous.

"The Fringe is a really interesting one: I do believe that we are at a moment where [you think], how do you maintain the spirit of the Fringe, and what it is for originally, which was very inclusive, allowing everyone to participate: which is maybe not as easy now, and is more expensive?"

Shona McCarthy, the chief executive of the Fringe Society, told The Herald on Sunday that it does not have a "growth agenda".

Indeed, in several briefings, she has repeatedly said she is not overly concerned with the size of the festival, or ticket sales, per se. She added: "Our objective is to support the thousands of artists, creatives, workers, media, arts industry and audience members who make the festival happen each year, and to ensure that the Fringe remains true to its open access principles.

"Anyone with a story to tell and a venue willing to host them is welcome on the Fringe – this is the inclusive spirit that the festival was founded upon and we will always champion that cause."

She added: "We are mindful, though, that the Fringe would not be possible without the city’s support. We work closely with partners across the city, in government, in business, in transport, in education and communities, in companies and venues to ensure that the Fringe strives to be the best festival in the world to both present and see work."

Garcia added that, in her view, "there is a point where you reach your peak and it is not possible to grow any further". She added: "The problem is, once you get there, things can have damaging effects. It is better to stop before you get to that point: you have that issue form a strategic point of view, how to you regulate things while allowing a diversity of entries. In the Fringe, I don't think the answer is increasing costs, making it harder and harder to do it, because the beauty of it is the diversity, and the risks you are able to take. It is very valuable that you don't have that curation aspect to it."

Garcia suggests that the number of venues should be looked at "and not just keep multiplying them in a way that is a lack of consideration to the city. It is very important that the festival is not just the programme, but an experience of the city: you need to have that quality of experience of the streets, which gets affected when you are not allowed to even move around."

This latter factor has been noted by both the city and Festivals Edinburgh.

A recent council report, Managing Our Festival City, notes: "Edinburgh during the summer festival period is a busy, noisy, and often crowded place. Whilst this is clearly part of the festival experience, it is now widely acknowledged that the experience of Edinburgh during the summer festival time could be significantly improved, for residents and for visitors. A more coordinated set of measures is now required to respond to the demands of managing our Festival City."

The report touches on several areas of concern, including potentially dangerous overcrowding in the cramped Old Town – the greatest pressure is evident on the High Street from North Bridge to St Mary’s Street, at the top of Blair Street, on Victoria Street, and on the Lawnmarket and the Cowgate – and how the city manages large concerts, the Summer Sessions, in its city centre parks.

Councillor Donald Wilson, culture convener at the City of Edinburgh Council, admits there are "challenges", while pointing to a survey that found 76% of residents believe it makes the city a better place to live.

However, he added: "As the numbers grow some challenges emerge. The future of the festivals is very important to us all and it is important that the impacts on the city’s infrastructure and services is accurately measured, understood, and managed."

He noted the new Transient Visitor Levy, which he says "will help show a direct financial benefit to citizens", the establishment of a Tourism and Communities Short Life Working Group, as well as the Managing Our Festival City report.

He added: "Our aim is to ensure the benefits are felt across the city both economically and culturally."

Mike Small, editor of the website Bella Caledonia, and based in Edinburgh, is sure that the Festivals cannot keep expanding: in recent years he has become a vocal critic of how the Festivals operate, and how they relate to the city.

He said: "It's clearly not sustainable, but on several levels. The question that everyone is asking is: is growth the only metric of success you have? Just growth and growth and growth.

"I feel that the companies and the different festival societies are completely detached from the level of cultural alienation that is going on in the city. They just get defensive, and it gets framed as a class issue, or just 'You don't like the festival' or 'You're a moaner'.

"I have been going to the festivals for 30 years, I absolutely love the festival, but you cannot be so defensive that you cannot take on any criticism or self-reflection about what is going on. That's a real problem."

He also says that there is "not much critical self-reflection within the arts and cultural community", including among journalists, about the issues around the Festivals.

"It is deeply problematic to have growth as the main metric of success, and the Fringe, and the others, have to reflect on how they relate to the city where it takes part," he added.

Mr Small added: "The issue knocks into the question of: who owns the city, what is the festival for? There a deeper cultural questions."

The Fair Fringe said: "The current growth of the Fringe is unsustainable, as it’s creating a Fringe built off the backs of exploitation.

"Fringe employers are expanding while enforcing poor conditions to bolster their bottom line, but the Fringe Society can stop this.

"The Fringe Society need to refuse to let employers who don’t treat their staff fairly advertise in the programme – that will ensure we are working towards sustainable growth that benefits everyone."

Fergus Linehan, director of the EIF, says that all the festivals are less interested in the hard numbers of growth – size, scale and number of productions – than perhaps the media is. Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe Society, has also noted this.

Mr Linehan said a new sensibility has taken hold: how can the festivals improve the cultural life of Edinburgh citizens year-round, and what are the strategies to achieve this? He points to the new Place Fund, a new £15m fund, involving Scottish Government, the City of Edinburgh Council and the Edinburgh Festivals, which will, over the next five years, fund a range of community projects.

Linehan noted that the growth of the festivals should not be conflated with the growth of tourism to Scotland in general.

He made another point: Edinburgh itself is not a static city. Indeed, recently Edinburgh Council chief executive Andrew Kerr said its population would overtake Glasgow by 2032.

Nick Barley, director of the EIBF, said: "It’s important we all work together to safeguard the future of the world’s leading festival city and involve residents, local businesses and visitors in the conversation and ensure our programmes continue to remain relevant."

Festivals Edinburgh, the umbrella organisation, said in a statement that "sustaining a healthy balance of interests between residents, businesses and visitors is of central importance to Edinburgh’s continuing success as a cultural capital and we’re working with city partners towards that".

Julia Amour, the director, added: “Together we work to ensure the festivals’ sustainability, which depends on a range of factors – including continued investment in programmes, the quality of audience experiences, the international dimension of our work, the engagement of local people and a commitment to environmentalism."

Noting that the festivals have "weathered difficult economic times", she says that "dealing with the challenges and opportunities of resident and visitor growth is crucial to Edinburgh’s future success. If tourism continues to grow, measures to manage this need to be rooted in an understanding of Edinburgh’s year-round popularity, as the city has one of the highest average year-round occupancy rates in Europe, rather than simply a summer appeal.

"We are working to create a better understanding of pedestrian flows during the peak summer season, so that active management of spaces can offer a better experience and way-finding can encourage visitors to discover quieter routes."

The remarkable success of the festivals is underscored by other observers.

Professor Gayle McPherson of the University of the West of Scotland, said the key to sustainability is "quality, quality, quality.

"If this isn't right, people will stop paying.

"Shona McCarthy has a wealth of experience, and whilst the festival fringe continues to grow she will ensure the quality of performances and productions do too.

"Price is a factor too...a key to sustainability is ensuring that this remains accessible financially and socially for all groups in society."

Another expert, Jennifer Snowball, the Professor of Economics at Rhodes University and Researcher at the South African Cultural Observatory, has studied festivals such as the South African National Arts Festival (NAF), which also has a large 10-day fringe.

She suggested that the impact of Brexit might have a negative effect on ticket sales, and added: "There is some point at which the capacity of the host city to provide suitable venues will be reached – this is starting to happen at the NAF, which has led to the introduction of rules relating to how many days a Fringe show can run for.

"Until then, as long as producers see benefits from coming, both market and non-market, and they can more-or-less cover their costs, I would expect the size of the Fringe to continue to increase."

COMMENT

Shona McCarthy, chief executive of the Fringe:

"The Fringe is, and has always been, an eclectic ecosystem which features a wide variety of operating models, from volunteer-run theatre groups and small not-for-profits, to larger-scale, year-round operators and permanent venues. The Fringe continues to evolve and innovate, responding to the needs of participants and audience members.

"We need a city-wide effort and commitment to ensuring this festival remains affordable and accessible to all and to provide a supportive landscape for the Fringe. The Fringe Society is determined to address cost barriers and has frozen registration fees for artists since 2008, as well as committing to reduce the commission we take on tickets from 4% to 3% by 2022.

"We are also working to secure affordable accommodation for artists attending the Fringe, as this has been identified as a key barrier to attendance. We actively encourage venues to set up in different areas of the city and we have made a concerted effort to ensure these are profiled and signposted. The Fringe Society is only one part of what makes up the Fringe, we have made public pledges on how we will work to ensure the festival is affordable and a great place to show work, to see work, to run a venue, to be employed, to volunteer.

"We are working now to ask every stakeholder and every organisation that benefits from this phenomenal festival to make their pledge as to how they will give back, re-invest and play their part in ensuring that it is sustainable for the artists and workers at the heart of it."