Red tape is a perennial headache for festival organisers trying to cut the ribbon on their latest event. Access spoke to event organisers large and small, as well as influential authorities to demystify the dark art.
Rogue producers, events spiralling out of control and disturbances to residents are understandable concerns for local authorities, who have a duty to uphold what they were elected for, and avoid bad press. However, the vast majority of events serve to invigorate communities, provide unbeatable entertainment, and generate much needed revenue for cash-strapped local authorities.
The issue, according to We Are The Fair’s CEO Nick Morgan, is balancing consumer media focus on the negatives of any show which promotes engagement/sells newspapers with the huge benefits from hosting shows in green spaces. “On the very basic level the amount of revenue paid to councils on an annual basis in in excess of £100m as per the The Political Economy of Informal Events white paper. Whilst it can be hugely frustrating for local residents during the build, live and break of any show there are some parks that simply couldn’t be maintained without the show paying green space revenue.
“We all know councils are facing huge financial pressures and these contributions often fund Rangers through to infrastructure. Recently through our pooled revenue over the course of three years, we paid for a brand-new play area. In terms of economic impact to the area, council’s might simply focus on the show day and the attendees using local shops, travel infrastructure, accommodation which generates spend external to the festival site.”
Being sympathetic to the needs of organisers has been vital to stimulating a vibrant events scene around the Olympic Park. Peter Tudor, director of Visitor Services Park Operations and Venues, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, met Access for a stroll in the Park: “The key thing we do is make sure the person promoting the event will engage with residents and those in the buildings around the park. There are various forums, including residents’ associations and getting correct info on how people will get through the park and not the residential district. As with Ride London and half marathons, if roads are to be closed, people need to know about that
“There’s a big bible we refer to every time we know people will disrupt routes. We couldn’t do things like in the Copper Box Arena with the roads closed. Next summer we’ll have basketball and baseball in the stadium, as well as hockey in the North of the park, and we’re due something in the Copper Box at the same time.
He says there are ways to engage locals in the process. “A number of residents are volunteers in the park, so they can get early access to tickets, then there’s an opportunity for people in the new office buildings surrounding the Park to get engaged.
“We’re well briefed on the benefits of events. The ‘London is open’ ethos is strong, and the benefits to hotels and local businesses is well understood. But there are inevitable disruptions that we try and make a virtue of. For example, The Aquatics Centre has thousands of members and swimming lessons take place over the weekend, so making sure they can get involved in events has been a focus, but we build that into the event plans. Arcadia Spectacular’s dress rehearsal was made into a community night, where locals got to see the spider in action.”
While high profile events often have experienced teams to deal with bureaucracy, for smaller event organisers, the challenges can be significant. Samantha Hasler, director, Jess Productions, runs a day time, three-day beer festival Beer Bop A Lua in Reigate’s Priory Park, with suppliers including Meridian Events for tents and crew and Blue Elephant technical production. She says having an action plan in place, and working with local stakeholders is key.
“We Love Reigate, a residents’ group which operates where my festival is based, are a great organisation. In our first year, we were presenting a product that no one knows, so there’s inevitably caution. But going into year two with great feedback from visitors and a happy council is a relief. We also worked with the Greenspaces team, who look after the parks.
“We had a lot of objections on our first premises license, but we got through the hearing, and got the restriction lifted. I worked with the residents’ association, and assured them the event was friendly for children, parents, grandparents and that there would be an eclectic audience, as well as eclectic beverage options, with a champagne bar and a cocktail bar, and we try to keep the price reasonable.
“Noise, particularly the bass, was the concern. We have decibel limits in place , so we employed a company to take readings, and we stayed within those limits. Parking restrictions were also put in place and local residents came, enjoyed it, and saw the benefits. The event allowed people to see other things in Reigate, so it boosted businesses.
“Priory Park is Reigate’s jewel in the crown, so damage to the grass was a worry, but the ground is sandy and drains well. We were also careful of not moving vehicles if it was raining. Reigate were proactive but the park doesn’t have its own premises license. A few events had tried to start but not taken off. You’ve really got to show people you have something to offer, which takes investment in production and make something worthy of the town.
Hasler’s good reputation also helped in year one: “The council contacted me to do the event after seeing me do an event successfully in another town, the police knew our head of security and had seen my other event, so the licensing people were supportive.”
Things can get far more complicated, however, and Morgan says it can be hugely frustrating when councils don’t communicate internally. “We have spent hours with council commercial teams who are really keen to host one of our shows, however they haven’t engaged with the hierarchy and when it is finally presented for approval to the Head of council or other councillors they turn down applications simply because there was no prior engagement from their officers and are ambushed with an application without any prior knowledge.
“There is also huge disparity between councils who are used to hosting events and those that are less experienced. Whilst you would think they would draw upon those councils with the experience they often don’t, and therefore a lot of work has to be done to try and make them understand the benefits of events and the realism of what they are undertaking. They often present unrealistic requests initially which are simply not practicable.”
There are also problems with understanding the overall impact of an event. Morgan says: “In terms of economic impact to the area, councils might simply focus on the show day and the spend generated externally to the festival site. However, we can have up to 400-500 support staff on a show including suppliers, who all spend in the local area and need accommodation through the build and break period. Sometimes we are on site for 3-4 weeks so the economic impact needs to be considered.”
Some authorities are being proactive in supporting events, and embracing the benefits, while others would benefit from a wider outlook.