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 therefore essential.

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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