Sidmouth FolkWeek 2011 - Councillor Tony Reed and the rewriting of history.

For more than a decade, Sidmouth has had an almost 'one-party' political system. The Tory hold on East Devon District Council was consolidated in recent elections, and control of Devon County Council passed to the Tories also. Sidmouth Town Council, whilst ostensibly 'independent', has been wholly dominated by Tory local councillors for many years. In effect, a small band of councillors and party officials run everything. Occasionally, a small squeak of dissent may be heard coming from one or other of the few 'independent' councillors, but within the corridors of power, such events are generally viewed merely as entertainment. Within such a system, where self congratulation rather than any attempt at analysis or criticism is the norm, it is usual to find the local press having been reduced to a state of numb obedience. Everything that councillors do is slavishly reported and often praised, and irrespective of any genuine merit. The history of my own involvement in local politics is here.

Years ago, the Sidmouth Herald was quite a lively and often provocative local newspaper - far better than many of its 'small town' contemporaries. All that changed when John Goodwin stepped down as editor. Nowadays - just let's say I stopped buying it five or more years ago.

Local politics in Sidmouth (as in other largely rural areas) can be dominated by a few farming and land-owning families. Often they go back generations. They can view the entire region as theirs to control, as if by right. It is usual also to find enmity and feuding (not to mention inter-marriage!) amongst these land-owning barons.

The history of Sidmouth's International Festival in the years up to the 50th and final year are documented on this website. In 2005 things looked bleak, yet together with many local 'folkies' two men stepped forward to help ensure that some sort of festival took place. It was widely thought then (and probably correctly) that if there was no festival worthy of the name at all in 2005, it would be far more difficult to restart one in 2006 or subsequently. Therefore, 2005 was seen as a crucial year. Two names stand out - both men were prepared to risk tens of thousands of pounds of their own money in order to try and ensure that the festival didn't die completely. These were Gordon Newton, a folk musician and businessman from Kent and Malcolm Burrough, one of a family of Devon farmers and landowners - he runs the Thorn Park golf centre, where many folkies have camped for years.

At the time, Tony Reed was a local and long serving councillor and also Chairman of the Town Council. He was therefore able to 'pull strings' as needed. Whilst Gordon Newton organised events on the Ham and in the town, Mr Burrough prepared to take on the task of running an LNE event. Yet every possible obstacle seemed to be put in his way by EDDC - something that Councillor Reed could surely have tried to prevent?

Mr Burrough was even asked ' what if there were complaints about the noise from Seaton?' - Seaton is about six miles away from the Thorn Park site! Faced however with what he regarded as ridiculous demands for numbers of toilets (in addition to a large number of security guards and other demands) Mr Burrough pulled out at the last minute, rather than face losses of maybe 20,000 to 30,000. Very late in the day, Gordon Newton stepped in again to run the LNE also - and he apparently lost a lot of money in the process.

There was no doubt therefore that Gordon Newton did as much as anyone else (if not far more) to save Sidmouth festival in 2005.

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Barry Lister, Tony Reed, John Braithwaite Aug 2011


Yet as history is rewritten, and the well connected Tony Reed was granted 'Freedom of the Festival' in 2011 what was reported by the Sidmouth Herald in its glowing tribute? Quite simply that Tony Reed alone had been the man of the moment.

It is probably indicative of the close symbiosis between the present members of Sidmouth Town Council and the FolkWeek management that their mutual wish is not to allow truth to get in the way of a heart-warming 'local hero' story.  Farmer Reed, born in the Sid valley, Mr Fix-it of the town council, the man who bravely saved our precious festival!

And yet it was Tony Reed who destroyed any prospect of Gordon Newton returning in 2006 to build on the success of 2005. At a meeting at which both were present, Tony Reed (in typical bullish style) referred to Gordon Newton in derogatory terms as 'Jack the lad from Kent'.

So here was a local farmer, one who owed his status and influence primarily to inherited money and a position on the Town Council, belittling the contribution of a folk musician and businessman who had travelled half way across the country and lost a lot of his own money to help save Sidmouth's festival. It was typical arrogance of a local politician of the type who knows he will be re-elected for as long as he stands for office.

Unfortunately, Gordon Newton overheard the comment and took offence. And so it was that Sidmouth in 2006 had to manage without Gordon Newton's undoubted expertise and knowledge of festival management. The festival struggled on - as is recorded on this website - and in 2008 Leo Beirne acted as festival director. His lasting legacy includes the tiered seating in the Ham marquee. Late in 2008 John Braithwaite rose to prominence and soon became overall Festival Director. His own credentials are here.

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Sidmouth Town Council publicity banner adorning the Ham concert marquee, August 2011

It could also be pointed out to Councillor Reed that there are many millionaires in the Sid Valley - and some earned their money, they didn't marry it. Of the dozens who could have 'saved' the prestigious International Festival, none 'stepped up to the plate'. No-one locally therefore (and certainly not any of the grandees on Sidmouth Town Council) much wanted to save the old and hugely prestigious International Festival. They wanted an event that they could control.

Present day FolkWeek management might also be wise, if economic conditions ever allow, to seek to diversify their funding base away from sources that are so under the influence of what is ultimately a self serving political machine dominated by largely inadequate people. Few if any major festivals manage to survive without a measure of local 'political' funding, but some maintain as much 'blue water' between themselves and local politicians as possible.

The following report appeared in the Sidmouth Herald of 5 August 2011 - amidst pages of congratulatory articles and photographs.

FolkWeek organiser Tony is honoured

SIDMOUTH'S talented Sidmouth Steppers and the town's award-winning band, made sure visitors had a home-grown early welcome to Folk- Week 2011.

During Saturday's welcome concert, headed by the band, organisers honoured Sidmothian Tony Reed with the Freedom of the Festival.

Barry Lister, vice chairman of Sidmouth FolkWeek Ltd., explained to a packed Ham marquee how Tony had, in 2005 "stepped up to the plate" after the international festival's organiser pulled out.

"His help and support in getting procedures with the district and town councils done was invaluable, as was his wife's hospitality at meetings," said Barry.

"When you want something done, Tony will make it happen," added festival director John Braithwaite.

Tony, 74, who was first chairman of the newly-formed FolkWeek, said: "I happened to be chairman of the town council and decided the festival was not going to die on my watch.

"We very quickly got a band of volunteer helpers together that got us on the road to continue this festival."

He said it had been vital to keep the first week of August as the date for Sidmouth's festival, now in its 57th year. Since its re-formation, Tony said local businesses had been gently coerced to back the event, which this year had more than 600 events on offer.

Tony, president of the town band, said how important the festival was commercially to the town, one reason it couldn't be lost to Sidmouth.

"It is easy to put on a good show, but making it pay is hard sometimes" he said. "The festival is now on a much sounder base, both financially and flourishing artistically."

He thanked organisers for the accolade saying: "This is my third award this year - Freeman of the Town, an Alderman and now Freedom of the Festival.

"I am immensely proud to have been able to do something for the good of the town."

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