We Are The Fair director Yasmin Galletti provides her views on whether the burden of societal issues are unfairly placed on festival organisers.

Opening Gala Festival in late July 2021, for the first time in 796 days, felt hugely rewarding. I was surprised at the ease with which it all came back to me, because I was nervous about running a festival after so long. It also felt that managing to open the gates in the face of the clear-as-mud Covid rules and the very-real-mud gifted to us by July’s heavy rainfall, meant we had made it through the hardest part.

It wasn’t until a mid-September show that I was sat with a colleague in the ops office, dealing with queries from the local safety advisory group (SAG) about our policy on illegal taxi ranks and drug dealers sitting outside the festival, that I fully remembered the burden placed upon festival organisers to solve the societal issues occurring in the community surrounding our events.

As we look ahead to this year’s season and embark on the licensing process, these pressures are even stronger. Obtaining premises licences for our festivals in London is becoming an increasingly costly and challenging process due to mounting objections from local residents. These objections often stem from deep-rooted fears about music festivals and ingrained negative views about the type of people and behaviours these events will bring. Aside from noise, the issues that are raised most frequently include crime, vandalism, violence, litter and drug use – all of which are existing societal problems. For residents, raising an objection against a festival premises licence seems to have become a useful platform through which to attribute blame and voice grievances about existing problems. We find ourselves spending time and money fighting the claims due to local political pressures.

As festival organisers, our objective is to build a safe and inclusive space for our attendees, make sure people have a good time and ensure they get back home safely. To satisfy the requirements of local authorities and residents living nearby, we are also tasked with solving societal problems. They include reducing local crime, preventing vandalism, stopping unlicensed cabbies, preventing drugs from breaching our 3.3m-high steel shield fencing, and stopping people purchasing nitrous oxide outside when police don’t have the powers to do so. It is true that we have a responsibility for the safety of our audiences and to minimise the impact of our events on the local neighbourhood, but can we truly be held accountable for illegal activity and societal failings that take place every day across the country?

Depending on where you are located, your SAG and the responsible authorities may understand this, or they may not. The updated guidance in the Purple Guide on working with an SAG provides some clarity on the powers they have. However, what we require is a consistent approach to drug policy, nitrous oxide policy and other more deeply rooted issues that sit across every local authority. To achieve this, we propose the creation of a framework of policy agreed with the LGA (Local Government Association) in conjunction with the industry that is properly disseminated industry-wide.

What can we do in the meantime? Understand and manage stakeholders’ expectations. Through effective stakeholder engagement, we have the opportunity to discuss our plans, to be open and transparent, and to explain how our events will operate. By ensuring the community knows certain measures are in place, we can ease concerns and gain support for events. Breaking down the barriers between festival organisers and stakeholders is crucial.

Yasmin will be among the Event Production Show conference speakers on 8 March at ExCel London. Register to attend for free here

This opinion piece features in the latest edition of Access All Areas magazine  – subscribe for free here