Highlights from the discussion at
the Town Meeting held in Sidmouth on 14 June 2004, organised by East Devon District
Council and Sidmouth Town Council.
Note: if anyone who attended is
keen that a point they made be stressed or the emphasis changed, please email me.
Members of the panel were: Cllr. Tony Reed
(chairman), Cllr. Ann Liverton, (both Sidmouth Town Council), Cllr. Andrew Moulding (Cllr.
at EDDC), Derek Schofield (author of the history of the festival and formerly one of its
arena theatre directors), Bill Lankester (Sidmouth businessman and president of Friends of
Sidmouth Festival) and Peter Mason (a consultant employed by EDDC and whose report on the
festival was still 'under wraps').
The meeting lasted two hours. Although it
was primarily for people of the town, a few from outside attended, some from as far away
as Kent, keen to give the festival their support. A survey undertaken in the local
Sidmouth Herald in the weeks before the meeting produced a 2:1 vote in favour of retaining
a festival - in round figures 200 votes for and 100 against, out of a population of around
13,000. The circulation of the Herald is over 7000 copies per week - in two weeks 14,000
forms would have been available to be returned.
According to figures provided by the town
council, about 80 people attended, over 60 of whom were from Sidmouth or the immediate
locality. The official record of the meeting is here.
Topics are listed in no particular order of
importance. However, it was the strong view that there should be more local involvement,
that arranging the 2005 festival was now desperately urgent, that financial support from
'mean spirited' rich local business people should not be essential, and that the festival
should not be downsized, or Sidmouth risked losing it completely.
After the meeting closed some well known local supporters of the festival were in gloomy
mood - there was little confidence in Councils or councillors. The feeling was that if
2005 could not be made a success, a sizeable event in 2006 might prove impossible to
promote successfully. What follows includes some items that are discussed locally in Devon
folk clubs but that were not raised specifically at the town meeting. However, there is no
conflict in general sentiments.
LOCAL INVOLVEMENT Many people feel
the festival has become too 'disconnected' from local people, and indeed disconnected from
local folk groups who in the early days, were instrumental in running what was then a much
more local (and smaller) event. Greater involvement by people who live in Sidmouth and the
surrounding area was seen as desirable in any future arrangements.
FESTIVAL NOW TOO COMMERCIALISED
This is a common complaint in Sidmouth - that the festival gives nothing back to
the town and you even have to pay to enter the Arena area. Against this, people recognised
the economic realities of running a large festival where commercial rates have to be paid
for equipment hire, etc. Much of the ill feeling is generated by the perceived secrecy
surrounding the 'festival accounts' and the need for more openness was voiced.
LIFE (AND THE FESTIVAL) IS ABOUT MORE
THAN MONEY Bill Lankester made an impassioned plea for the spiritual
value of the festival to be recognised - life is not all about money - and his views were
echoed by several contributors in the audience. It was felt that if a town as rich as
Sidmouth cannot contribute significantly to hosting an event known throughout the world
for facilitating cultural exchanges and contacts then it is a 'pretty poor show'. It was
thought that many local people simply did not realise what was at stake if the town lost
its principal 'claim to fame'.
CLAIMS OF £6 MILLION or £1 MILLION
ARE SUSPECT. Claims that the festival brought variously £1 million
or £6 million of extra income to Sidmouth people were thought laughable. Peter Mason
agreed that the widely publicised figure of £6 million was based on a limited survey and
that the figure had to be treated with care, if not suspicion. The point was made that any
future arrangements should proceed from a firm understanding of the festival finances (and
its financial benefits to the town). Lack of data was seen as an impediment to serious
discussion. The need for proper marginal analysis was mentioned, as was the need to
recognise that retained local benefit would be a small part of raw visitor spend. Festival
finances are further discussed here.
CANNOT GO BACK TO THE OLD DAYS
Several people remembered the old 'Hobby Horse' days and wanted to return to these.
This was ruled impracticable if only because any event where adults worked with children
required that the staff and volunteers etc, be vetted. Management needed to be
accountable. Also, the degree of local support for the festival that was a feature of the
local folk scene decades ago may no longer be available and professional organisation was
STEVE HEAP INCORPORATED
Many people in Sidmouth refer to the festival as "Steve Heap
Incorporated". There is a need both for more transparency in finances and
appreciation locally of the huge contribution made by Mr Heap and his team over the past
decades. Ill feeling on both sides may need to be addressed. It is recognised also that to
have the organisation of the festival so much in the (capable) hands of one or two people
who do not live locally is inherently risky. Sidmouth may need to take more control over
the festival if only to guard against unforeseen illness, for example. The festival is a
large part of "what makes Sidmouth special". To be successful, it must be run by
competent and interested people, not by a committee of bureaucrats - local or otherwise.
THE EDDC REPORT MUST BE PUBLISHED
In January 2004 EDDC commissioned a report on the future of the festival. Copies
were in the hands of councillors but it was not a 'public' document. Many people thought
it should be - and told EDDC so in no uncertain terms. If Mr Heap agrees to release of the
commercial data it contains then EDDC promised to publish it in full or part form.
URGENCY OF ARRANGING THE 2005 FESTIVAL
It was considered important to set in motion arrangements for 2005. Many people
feel that in the limited time now available, only Steve Heap could organise a successful
event. If Councils and their working parties and committees mess up the 2005 event, the
festival may be irrecoverable. There was anger that EDDC had kept so much information
secret from local people for months - but it was only in May that the festival issued its
press statement. It has been pointed out by the Festival organisers and as a matter of
historical record, that the current difficulties were brought to EDDC's attention as far
back as 3 years ago. This was at a meeting attended also by Sidmouth Town Council.
WHICH PARTS OF THE FESTIVAL MAKE
MONEY? There was some discussion of which parts of the festival
make most of the money and that (therefore) might be retained in any downsized future
event. The consensus was that the festival is more than the sum of its parts and that if
'loss making' venues or shows were removed the whole spirit could be affected. A small
'core' festival with a few fringe events was not considered to be a viable alternative to
what people have come to expect.
WHY DID 2003 NOT PRODUCE A SURPLUS?The
question was raised why the splendid weather of 2003 did not produce a surplus to help
bolster reserves for 2004 and beyond - surely if the festival did not make a profit in
2003 it could never do so?
IDEAS FOR FINDING £200,000
- actually not a lot of money! There are probably over 200 millionaires in Sidmouth
(and over 2000 if you include the value of their houses?) Many are retired and life is a
constant struggle to find things to buy. Rich business people in Sidmouth were described
at the meeting as 'tighter than a camel's ??? and owning four or five expensive cars',
which is probably one of the more polite descriptions that could be applied to them. If
200 gave £1000 each, the immediate problem would be solved. It was thought more
practicable to try to obtain £4 from 50,000 ordinary people, maybe as shareholders. Bill
Lankester described how he had once spent a week trying to obtain support from every
business in Sidmouth - and with very little to show for it. Another idea is to offer
'free season tickets for life' to anyone willing to risk £1000 on the condition that
every few years you might (or might not) expect to lose the money if it was required to
meet wet weather losses. In a run of good years, you might get ten tickets worth £150
each before losing your stake and having to start again with another £1000.
HEALTH AND SAFETY - COMPENSATION
CULTURE RUINING LOCAL EVENTS Everything nowadays has to be covered by
liability insurance to the extent that even egg and spoon races at village fetes are being
cancelled. It is about time our MPs did something useful and reversed the march of the
lawyers - but there again, so many of them are lawyers.....Insurance costs for the
festival are significant. Some accommodation in school buildings was apparently no longer
available to the festival - Health and Safety rules were cited.
CRICKET CLUB PARKING -
SIDMOUTH'S WORST SIDE LAID BARE? If true, what was said exposes the nasty side of Sidmouth. For years the Rugby
and Cricket clubs in Sidmouth have made money from car parking charges on their land
during folk week. It was alleged that one of them had tried to obtain money from the
Festival for allowing the ground to be used by festival patrons - in addition to the car
parking charges they levied. A member of the audience tried to say this was untrue - but
Cllr Tony Reed said he had a letter in his hand to confirm the facts of the case. There
was some confusion that it was the rugby club - since the meeting I have been informed it
was the cricket club. More details later - perhaps........note added November 2004: I have
been told that the Rugby club do give some money to the festival and that this is recorded
in their accounts.
POLICING PROBLEMS ARE MINOR - THE
FESTIVAL SETS A GOOD EXAMPLE! The Sidmouth festival is valuable as an
example of how people can police themselves - there is hardly any trouble and the stewards
do a wonderful job. If only all life could be like the first week in August in Sidmouth!
STEVE HEAP DID NOT ATTEND THE MEETING It was explained that Steve Heap had a previous
engagement, that he had suffered a family bereavement ten days earlier and that the
meeting was primarily for the town itself to discuss what it wanted. Most people accepted
this as reasonable.
BENEFITS SPREAD BEYOND SIDMOUTH
Income from the festival spreads beyond Sidmouth (but by how much?). Examples were
B&B accommodation being used elsewhere in East Devon by people attending the festival.
Good data might persuade councillors from outside Sidmouth to invest more EDDC money in
the festival - but knowing the true figures might have the opposite effect!
HOW OTHER FESTIVALS OPERATE:
SUCCESSFUL ECONOMIC MODELS? Surprise was expressed that there
appeared to be no authoritative survey of festivals to show which made or lost money, how
they were subsidised, etc. Womad was quoted as making a profit for Reading BC. The
organisation of a festival held annually at Maidstone was discussed - it was supported by
the local council. The point was made that the Arts Council would not fund the Sidmouth
Festival because it was professionally organised as a business.
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