Sidmouth festival to be starved of cash aid?

Reproduced below is a report of a meeting held on 29 September 2004 between Sidmouth Town Council, EDDC and folk organisations and individuals involved in trying to save the festival. The meeting was not open to the public. The report is preceded by some discussion, to set the scene. The views expressed are those of the author of this website. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the steering group who have been working with EDDC to plan the future of the festival.

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There was apparently an air of near despair amongst some of those who attended the meeting. Probable loss of funding that had been expected (if not actually promised) for 2006 was seen against a background of so little apparent genuine enthusiasm for the event from the 'political' level of EDDC. The proposed 2005 fringe festival had been seen as a way of keeping the spirit of 2004 alive whilst planning for 2006 and with the expectation that 60,000 from EDDC and earmarked for 2005 would have been 'rolled over' into guaranteed funds for 2006, thus enabling firm plans to be made.

Certainly, from my own recent discussions with EDDC officials, there appears to be little recognition of the amount of organisation that is required a year or more in advance of a full scale festival - and that this can only happen if a large team of enthusiastic and competent volunteers can be kept 'on board' and if considerable 'up front' funding is pledged. Even a fringe event would need considerable planning for artistic events, health and safety and camping, for example.

Unfortunately, nothing in the report is a surprise. The next few weeks may see either a renewed commitment by EDDC and the Town Council or even abandonment of the whole idea of saving the festival in Sidmouth - in which case a decision needs to be taken as to whether a similar 'showpiece' event could be held elsewhere in the UK in 2005 and building up to a full scale International Festival in 2006/7, maybe by expanding another existing festival in a part of the country where 'local politics' are less inward looking.

Money is - of course - a crucial issue. The funding of folk festivals in the UK is discussed on pages folk21.htm and folk22.htm. It is argued on these pages that the larger festivals should perhaps most appropriately be subsidised from central rather than local funds. However, this is no reason to abandon local funding of a world class event before national funding can be secured.

There is now more than ever a need to explore alternative sources of funding such as the Arts Council to make future festivals in Sidmouth largely or wholly independent of EDDC, even if some degree of artistic independence has to be sacrificed. Arts Council funding would at least be free from the factional infighting that determines so much in local government, in EDDC as elsewhere. In the longer term, the festival should aim to become as financially independent as possible.

EDDC were first notified that Steve Heap might be pulling out late in 2003 or early in 2004. Funding or grant aid was identified as a key issue at the town meeting held in June 2004. It seems now rather late in the day for Sidmouth Town Council to start talking of employing a short term fund raiser and expecting businesses in the town to contribute when the combined efforts of Steve Heap and Bill Lankester failed over many years to gain support from any but a small number of them. This seems more of a face saving exercise so the town council can say "well, we tried!"

Why should the business people of Sidmouth want to support a downgraded event when they failed to see any financial or cultural benefit in supporting a world class festival? Also, well-intentioned people in the folk world who talk of 'letting the people of Sidmouth regain ownership of their festival' as a way of increasing local support seem oblivious to the fact that for many years, only a few local people have been wholly enthusiastic.

The festival has for decades been Sidmouth's 'unique selling point', far more so than the regimented floral displays of Britain in Bloom which are dear to the hearts of many councillors and their friends. These displays consume tens of thousands of pounds of public money annually yet (inevitably) they are little better or worse than those reproduced in many towns and cities whose civic leaders also subscribe to 'chequebook gardening'. No credible evidence of their contribution to 'tourism income' has ever been produced. Likewise, the much hyped designation of Lyme Bay as a World Heritage Site or 'Jurassic Coast' is unlikely to bring much benefit to Sidmouth because the major features are further to the east, and in Dorset.

Sidmouth is located in a beautiful area. The festival has been built up to be a widely recognised and world class event, but maybe the town just doesn't deserve it any longer. Having councillors ambling around in circles offering little or no money whilst talking about "huge goodwill" and "enthusiastic support" will soon sound hollow even to the most dedicated of the festival's supporters. Either the local councils show some concrete and substantial support for 2006 - even offering some infrastructure costs for 2005 would help - or, sadly, maybe the focus needs to switch from Sidmouth.

Many people outside the town also fail to understand the internecine nature of relations between Sidmouth Town Council and EDDC, and indeed between various councillors belonging to the same ruling party. The fate of the festival will be determined as much by who can 'score points' by adopting a particular position as by any understanding or genuine appreciation of the event and its cultural values. This is (unfortunately) not an uncommon state of affairs within our convoluted, expensive and inadequate system of local government.

There are some councillors on EDDC who would relish the opportunity to 'do down' Sidmouth simply because they represent other areas of East Devon. There are historical reasons for this. If by their actions they damaged the area as a whole they would then delight in the opportunity to focus the blame elsewhere, perhaps onto the Town Council. Recent examples of 'turf wars' include how to publish tourism guides for Sidmouth (or for East Devon as a whole), and procedures for review of planning applications.

Matters that are of real importance to the town and its future - such as when to switch on the Christmas lights and who should do the grand deed, occupy many column centimetres of the local paper. The design of new road signs can also occupy many hours of earnest deliberation. What is rarely questioned is the total cost of all the childish, inane and self congratulatory bureaucracy - Sidmouth Town Council alone costs 160,000 annually. Arguably, it produces very little of substance, and its pronouncements on planning applications are often gleefully ignored at EDDC. Why then continue with the town council at all? Recent largely cosmetic refurbishment of the entrance foyer to the EDDC offices cost 100,000. When I pointed out in the local paper that you can build and equip several small flats for 100,000 (excluding land costs) the predictable reply from Councillor Anne Liverton, was that it was all 'within budget' and had gone splendidly well.

This is all part of a much wider discussion - but let no one be in any doubt that the sum of money required to secure the future of the Sidmouth festival in the short term (and in a form similar to the 2004 event) could be found within EDDC if the political will existed. Far more could already have been done by both officials and councillors.

In the end, matters may be decided behind closed doors by one or two senior councillors whose personal bias or interests may overrule any submissions from more junior councillors or officials. This concentration of power to the centre is a feature of 'cabinet style' local government and is discussed within an older section of this website.

There now follows a gloomy report from the Sidmouth Herald newspaper.

"Fringe festival cash not looking likely" - from the Sidmouth Herald of 1 Oct 2004.

NEXT year's fringe folk festival organisers are unlikely to get 60,000 funding from East Devon District Council, originally earmarked for the 2005 Sidmouth International Festival.

Now, after an all-day (non-public) meeting at Sidmouth Town Council on Wednesday of organisations and individuals working to save the festival, there is talk of paying a professional fundraiser to help find the huge grants needed for the event.

The group expressed disappointment at the news that the district council's financial position makes this lack of funding probable. Loss of the grant is a big blow to their plans.

Sidmouth town and district councillor Tony Reed said; "We need to set about some serious fundraising. The loss of the district council's money means that the town, and in particular local businesses, needs to look to itself to show positive commitment and leadership. Mr Reed, chairman of the town council, will talk to the council and local businesses about the best way to secure the necessary funding.

"Folk enthusiasts, local businesses and the - town as a whole are very keen for the festival to continue. We need to create a partnership between them all, and in the immediate future to turn the huge goodwill we have into concrete offers of financial support."

He said if local people and businesses showed a positive commitment to the event their leadership would reap big dividends.

"I'm sure folk groups and enthusiasts will also help. Folk South West, the Wren Trust and Great Western are already deeply involved. Many others are offering to help. We now need concrete offers of financial help. We need to pay a professional fundraiser to find the very big grants we need, and have to set up a proper trust or similar to own and run the festival.

If this doesn't happen, then the chances are we will lose the festival forever."

An EDDC spokesman, responding to Mr Reed's statement, said: "At its meeting on Wednesday evening, EDDC's executive board accepted the recommendations set out in a report from the festival working party. "This included a recommendation that the steering group should receive no funding. The implication of this decision - which still has to be ratified by the full council on October 13 - is that the 60,000 funding originally earmarked for the 2005 festival proper will not be available to the fringe festival.

"A decision on funding for the 2006 festival will be taken in January 2005, when the council considers its budgetary situation prior to the council tax for the next financial year."

He said the executive board also agreed recommendations of a service prioritisation exercise, which resulted in the festival appearing in the lowest priority banding.

He continued: "Notwithstanding the funding issue, the council will continue to give support and encouragement to the festival organisers who are working hard to secure the event's future."

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