Sidmouth Folk Week 2009: another good year (and once again, despite the weather).

Overall summary.

Sidmouth Folk Week in 2009 saw some major changes to layout and infrastructure as the organisers tried to optimise use of resources and address concerns expressed in previous years. Some of the ideas worked well and may be utilised again, albeit with a little fine tuning. Many events were 'sell-outs' and (as in previous years) many were highly praised for artistic merit.

However, one central problem is that the number of attendees cannot now sensibly be increased without providing additional or larger venues: many of the existing ones were (as in previous years) operating at or beyond reasonable limits. For example, in 2009 the festival ran out of caravan and motorhome spaces months before the event actually took place. The poor weather resulted in loss of town centre car parking spaces on grass at both the cricket club and the rugby club. The official (Bulverton) car parking field became so treacherous that it probably should have been closed on safety grounds. Some visitors drove into town, couldn't find anywhere to park and drove out again.

The town centre and Esplanade became choked with traffic for many hours at a time during periods of good weather - detracting significantly from what could have been a superb atmosphere if the whole area was pedestrianised (even just for Folk Week). Some concert venues were packed and with many more people wanting to gain entrance. The simple market solution would be an increase in ticket prices! Dance venues were (as in previous years) regularly packed to beyond the limit for safe and/or comfortable dancing. Some calculations are presented on subsequent webpages. Despite available venues often being 'packed out' the festival is continuing to struggle financially. There are only four solutions to providing better returns from expensive infrastructure - increase ticket prices, decrease operating costs, use the venues for more events during the week or extend the festival (in whatever guise) over a longer period. Hiring a marquee for two weeks should not cost twice the weekly rate!

In all, the event could have been bigger (people were effectively turned away by lack of motorhome spaces for example) but it would have needed a larger town with better 'out of centre' parking to accommodate it all in comfort. Critically, there is now no 'over-spill' capacity provided by the Knowle Arena.

The Bulverton car park became a mess owing to lack of wet weather planning - the organisers did strive to address what was almost certain to become a problem but only when it was too late. The 'free' weekend parking at the Knowle council offices is not made available during FolkWeek - probably because EDDC doesn't want to set a precedent for parking there during the subsequent week. It is also associated with local Hopper bus service which is suspended in FolkWeek.

Parking has been an issue in Sidmouth for decades and for the Sidmouth festival as well. The large fields that have been used in the past all have slopes and difficult entrances and/or exits. Short of moving Sidmouth or providing a huge Park and Ride facility it looks set to be 'mud all round' in future wet years. One proposed site for Park and Ride now seems likely to be used for 100 new houses - something an already congested town like Sidmouth needs like a hole in the head. Plans were exhibited in August 2009.

The point about lack of capacity was made some years ago on SeeRed. However, 2009 provided graphic proof of the need either to enhance venue capacity or limit the number of attendees. One exception (at times!) was the Bulverton marquee which (despite the weather) proved more successful in 2009 than in previous years. Overall it was about 25% smaller but the dance floor itself lost only 2 metres. The organisers are still struggling to make this venue pay. Attendance at some specialised events at the Bulverton was remarkable given the lashing rain and almost impassable mud. Other events were a flop. Both the Ham and the Bulverton might still be better utilised. The new bar area at the Ham was under-utilised. Far more should be made of this prestigious space in 2010, if indeed it is retained.

The appalling weather on a few days both before and during the festival week severely tested both the organisers and parts of the infrastructure - yet both survived. On the official campsite, conditions became dire on Tuesday after a day of heavy rain - and made worse by the selfish behaviour of some attendees - yet few if any people gave up and went home. They were rewarded by one day of glorious sunshine (Wednesday) and a few days of reasonable weather at the end of the week. The campsite managers in particular seemed to exemplify the spirit of the whole event - no matter what was thrown at them, they were determined both to get the job done and enjoy themselves: photos on subsequent webpages! The Task Force crews who battled against encroaching mud also deserve special mention.

Some sour notes were the over-officious attitude of some of the 'goons' - the crimson shirted security guards - and the shabby way a few performers were treated by the festival organisers. Examples will be given. Other festivals seem to manage without so many (or any) security personnel. One I happen to know was paid 9 an hour - a reduction from the usual rate of 12.50 but when overheads are added the festival is probably charged 25 an hour. Another safety issue is that there needs to be more road signage to warn drivers of 'pedestrians in road' or 'pedestrians day and night' along the Bulverton Road. For the second year running, ambulances had to be called to night-time accidents. 25 would buy quite a few home made road signs to warn of danger ahead. Some realignment of 'safety related' expenditure seems necessary.

The police also made their presence felt - by closing off two town centre venues all day for 'forensics' despite that an alleged assault (unconnected with Folk Week) took place outside the Methodist Hall at around 5am and with any biological evidence probably washed away by heavy rain.

The well documented behaviour of the UK police is to inconvenience the maximum number of people at every possible opportunity, in order to help assert their powers of control over the taxpayers they purport to serve. Examples include the routine closure of whole stretches of motorway for half a day (often in both directions) as a response to accidents that could be cleared up within an hour and without closing all lanes of the road. Sensible and proportionate police behaviour can be seen in many other advanced countries - the UK seems unique in that we have (so far) tolerated an absurd level of overzealous, self-important and sometimes thuggish behaviour by the police, often in the guise of 'counter terrorism', 'maintaining public order' or the ubiquitous excuses of 'public safety' or 'breach of the peace'.

There is also a point of self-interest here. A recent report in The Independent highlighted the huge sums routinely being claimed by police constables for overtime - salaries were regularly pushed over 50,000 pa and as high as 90,000 in London. If finance is available on such a scale it is little wonder that the police have developed a tendency to extend work to fill the available overtime! Extracts from the article are here. The Independent has a low circulation but they do occasionally produce quite interesting front page stories.

It is only a few years ago that the scale of police early retirement on grounds of purported ill health was exposed - with many officers receiving enhanced pensions whilst being quite capable of working. Again, it was a matter of milking an almost wholly unsupervised and unregulated system to maximum personal benefit - often to the tune of tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money. And these are the people who would feel virtuous for arresting shoplifters for stealing a 50p toffee bar! Combined with the increasing tendency of the police to charge people with assault for protecting their own homes and property against marauding feral yobs (and to let the yobs off with a caution), it is little wonder that both working and middle class support for the police has all but evaporated - and quite a few comments during Folk Week reflected that.

In the specific case of the assault during FolkWeek, it was necessary for a short while to close the Methodist Hall - on whose steps the assault apparently took place - but probably not the Church itself. There was a minor fire or other exit leading directly out onto the lane that was the 'crime scene' and this could probably have been closed for the day - even if it had been a fire exit. People could just have been warned to be extra careful and to note where all the other exits were. Common sense was disallowed - having long been extinguished by slavish adherence to political correctness and 'Elf and Safety'.


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