The Sidmouth Fringe Festival 2005 takes shape?

EDDC adopts a 'hands off' approach despite that some central organisation would be helpful.

A local councillor is given exclusive rights to hold lucrative arena events.

The steering group misses an opportunity to keep the arena folk-oriented?

"It's very sad that it's going. It will be missed, because the people who've run it up until now were absolutely fantastic, absolutely brilliant and they've done the folk world so much good by putting so much of their lives into organising the festival.
So it will be missed, but there will be something I'm sure."

Kate Rusby (BBC4 TV, 27 August 2004) 

There was no coverage of the festival in the Sidmouth Herald of 8 October.

However, following the 'depressing' meeting held on 29 September and reported on 1 October David Pagett of EDDC confirmed to me on 12 October that no date had yet been fixed for a meeting of all 'interested parties and potential helpers'.

It had been anticipated that a date in November would be fixed on 29 September - if only because such a meeting has been eagerly awaited ever since June when the public 'town meeting' took place in Sidmouth.

The meeting scheduled for October 23 in Sidmouth and publicised on other internet sites is restricted to persons or groups who intend to put on events and use venues within or around the town - contact points are John Dowell and Tony Day. It is possible that a date will be fixed at this meeting for a 'public' meeting later in 2004.

EDDC adopts a totally 'hands off' approach.

EDDC are continuing to adopt a 'hands off' approach to 2005 despite misgivings both within EDDC and within Sidmouth that discord and perceived lack of organisation in 2005 could impact on the festival's 'brand image' and so damage the prospects for 2006 - if indeed there are any prospects for a full scale festival now that it is known there will be no money from EDDC.

There are at least three areas of principal concern at the moment for 2005: organisation of camping, preservation of the festival's 'brand image' and transparency in handling arena and other ticket sales. I discussed these with David Pagett of EDDC and John Dowell on 12 October - what follows is a combined summary, and includes snippets from other conversations.

Camping organisation

It remains unclear how many people will wish to attend Sidmouth 2005. Much may depend on whether people perceive that attending 2005 will in some way be helping to secure the 2006 festival - and in large part this depends on any guarantees of transparency that may become available in respect of accounting for funds from the arena (and from car parking, dances and other activities) in 2005. This has been discussed previously, albeit only in outline. It is further discussed below in view of the consent now given by EDDC to Councillor Stuart Hughes to run a full week of arena events - and with potential income as high as those realised in recent years by Steve Heap - that is, up to 250,000 with the main campsite full and casual day visitors streaming into town.

It appears unlikely that the main festival campsite will be used in 2005. Instead, several smaller fields around Sidmouth may be available - these are owned by Malcolm Burrough (a local farmer) and Ian MacKenzie-Edwards a local Conservative councillor who runs the Kingsdown Tail Caravan Park (EX10 0PD, tel/fax 01297 680313). None are within easy walking distance of the town centre. Cycling from the Core Hill site (near Waitrose) would be easy enough but not ideal for children along busy and steep roads. Limited bus services may be available - depending on numbers camping at each site. The usual field for festival car parking close to the arena will (presumably) be available. If not, it will be chaos all round!

It would of course have been possible for the owner of the main campsite fields to provide these free of charge in 2005 as a gesture of goodwill towards the festival, from whom he has received substantial income for many years. I do not yet know if any approach has been made. Similarly, the car park field could be made available.

Use of the arena in 2005.

To understand how, in effect, a prominent local councillor from the ruling Conservative group of EDDC has been granted what amounts to exclusive rights to the arena showground (which is EDDC property) in 2005 it is necessary to refer a little to the background of the formation and 'terms of reference' of the steering group that came together to help save the festival. Early notes from some members have already been reproduced.

Originally, the group was focussed in discussions with EDDC on trying to formulate a new structure for the full 'international' festival and how to secure its future in 2006. Continuation of the annual grant from EDDC of 60,000 was at that time not (apparently) in serious doubt. It was in effect 'assumed' that this 'up-front' funding would be available.

It is now a moot point whether, within EDDC, it was already known or suspected (especially by fellow councillors of Stuart Hughes) that funds would not be available. If this is true, then the discussions that took place were not in good faith - EDDC were merely 'stringing along' the steering group to avoid any early denunciation that they were in effect abandoning the festival so soon after the success of the 2004 event. You may care to re-read what was said on 6 August 2004.

However, the financial problems involving millions of pounds 'shortfall' in central government funding that have recently led to EDDC abandoning all support for the Arts in East Devon were well known. A major press report appeared early in October 2004 but a year previously, alarm bells had been ringing. It was said by the leader of the ruling political group that it would be an 'interesting' year ahead. On 21 May 2004 a report was published in the Sidmouth Herald predicting severe cuts in services. It stated that in June a prioritisation exercise would be undertaken by the council in respect of funds for 2005. Savings of over 2 million had to be found.

However, it is quite possible that officers such as David Pagett were unaware of what may already have been decided behind closed doors. The same is less likely to be true for Councillor Moulding whose 'upbeat' messages about the festival being 'brought back with a bang in 2006' have often been quoted as EDDC policy. He is a member of the Sidmouth Festival Working Party, a group of councillors who on 15 September 2004 recommended not to give 2005/2006 any EDDC funding. A sentence from the bottom of page folk45 and published several weeks previously on this website, seems worth repeating:

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.

In good faith therefore, the steering group concentrated its efforts on 2006. The aim was to make the festival financially more secure and viable in the long term, whilst making it less reliant on the arena producing up to 250,000 in ticket sales to help subsidise all parts of the festival that did not generate sufficient revenue to cover their costs. This was a standard 'cost centre' analysis and one that Steve Heap had (no doubt) undertaken many times as he tried to keep the whole event afloat. Rough figures for arena costs/profits are available.

As the steering group concentrated on 2006 (and with hindsight, they took their eyes off 2005) it was left to individuals to think of how to run 2005 as a fringe festival. In the early days - immediately following the 2004 event - there was little talk of a large fringe festival. However, into this vacuum stepped Councillor Hughes, eager, no doubt, not to lose the annual revenue (perhaps up to 60,000) generated by his Caribbean Night event. A website appeared overnight very shortly after the 2004 festival and featured the participation of at least one EDDC official. Both the website title and stated intentions laid claim to the whole 2005 festival.

In early October the site promised:

We can also confirm that following the expense of putting on the events at the Arena that the profit remaining will be put into the 2006 festival.

the site will be worked up and will bring you ALL the news and information on Sidmouth Fringe 2005

It is not confirmed whether the phrase 'expense of putting on the events' include organisational expenses (remuneration) of persons or carnival committees or is simply and exclusively out of pocket expenses to third persons. Total transparency would require that the arena accounts were wholly in the public domain - and this is as true for other groups or companies holding events during 2005 if they claimed that they were holding them purely to support 2006. If they were 'up front' about making a profit and giving only some contribution to 2006, that would also be acceptable. This might appear to be 'splitting hairs'. However, anyone accustomed to how local councillors manipulate words and events to suit their own purposes might look for every possible interpretation.

In seeking to explain how EDDC had granted consent to Councillor Hughes, David Pagett said that the steering group "had been offered first refusal of the arena for 2005 but said they didn't want it." This is confirmed in formal EDDC minutes and arguably represents a critical lost opportunity. Not only was the arena effectively passed outside of the immediate control of the steering group but all potential to utilise it as a genuinely 'folkie' area may also have been lost.

Some people have argued that because the group were in no financial position to commit to up-front expenditure of around 40,000 for a 'full blown' arena infrastructure in 2005 they had to say that they had no use for the arena at all. This is simply not logical. Such a decision was certainly premature given that it would be over a month before a clear idea emerged of how many groups wished to hold how many events at a largely 'self organised' fringe festival. There was no need to commit at this stage to a full scale 'international festival' type of infrastructure on the arena for 2005. Even a few small marquees and tents would have brought some atmosphere to the town for low cost, utilising the arena for different purposes than in previous years.

The steering group probably would have accepted the offer of the arena either as a 'casual centre' for folkie activities in 2005 as (perhaps) as a source of revenue for both 2005/6 if two conditions had been met:

if they had been focussed more on different use for the arena in 2005 rather than exclusively on probably abortive attempts to secure a full scale international festival in 2006 and

if they had had time to consider how to secure the 'up-front' funding with which to pay for basic arena infrastructure 

It would have been immensely helpful if at an early stage EDDC had offered enough money to help ensure that 'showcase' and potentially lucrative arena events could be under the control of genuine 'folkies'. Even funding for basic infrastructure would have been helpful. EDDC have said often enough to me that they are concerned about maintaining the 'brand image' of the festival.

One comment was telling: a member of the steering group said to me that they had no means of putting money up-front for a marquee and sound equipment and that Councillor Hughes was the only person who could do this at short notice - "presumably using his Carnival and Caribbean Night funds". It is curious that such sums can (apparently) be so readily available - local press reports of our carnivals, etc, generally speak in terms of breaking even or small profits. How is up to 40,000 suddenly to be made available?

All of this raises the question of whether substantial profits from the arena will be diverted to 'local' carnival or associated accounts rather than being used to underpin a full festival in 2006. I put this point to David Pagett. He agreed it was a concern but said "what can we do?".

He reiterated that EDDC was adopting a "wholly hands off approach" to 2005. He assumed that money for arena events would be collected in effect by Councillor Hughes and his team. I stressed that transparency would be helpful especially if festival attendees were led to believe that by supporting a 'degraded' event in 2005 they would be ensuring a return to a full scale international festival in 2006. He agreed that this was a concern (and so have members of the steering group).

It would indeed be ironic if folkies attended in 2005 believing they were supporting 2006 and beyond, only to have their money and/or their time as stewards utilised in the main or in substantial part to support local 'fairground type' events in Sidmouth run by councillors whose close political allies had been instrumental in denying the international festival in 2006 any formal funding. Also, the folkies would be giving money to a town whose richest business people and residents had (with a few exceptions) steadfastly refused to support the festival for decades.

However, there are some particularly naive comments on various internet discussion websites - including from a woman who lives in Sidmouth. She should therefore know better than to assume that anything is straightforward if it centres around members of our ruling political elite. Edited comments are reproduced below.

I spoke to David Pagett and was told that EDDC is supporting your organisation (she meant the steering group) and that Stuart Hughes has 'been taken on board' and everyone is working together as one unit! And that Stuart was concerned about keeping the continuity of the Festival going!

EDDC are 'up the creek' as regards finances. Cutting back everywhere!

Whilst I appreciate that Stuart Hughes normally does Caribbean Night...... I believe that ALL should be working together, purely for the good of The Sidmouth Folk Festival and NOTHING else. (Agreed!)

David Pagett told me that EDDC has been inundated with letters of support and offers of help from all over the country. I asked him if any of the big, rich and wealthy business in Sidmouth had come forward to offer help and was told that sadly no, they hadn't! He couldn't believe it and said that shortly they will realise that they have killed off 'the goose that laid the golden egg', having made vast, substantial amounts from The Festival for decades! Tony Reed, who is on the Town Council (as well as on EDDC) is going to try and 'knock on a few doors' to raise some enthusiasm, but these 'doors' should be WIDE OPEN! It's really shaming!

I have met Bill Lankester only once. He seemed a lovely person who is deeply concerned for the Festival. He too told stories of total lack of interest from local businesses.

The Festival needs as many people as possible to support it in any way they can .......  Transparency in EVERYTHING concerned is what is needed. (No argument there!)

May the big businesses of Sidmouth hang their heads in shame! But please, let everyone move on, stop arguing about Tory or Labour or anyone else!

With hindsight (which is always useful in politics) the steering group or other 'genuine folkies' did not move quickly enough to stake a claim to the arena for 2005. There was surely no requirement that they had to use it for any particular purpose?

Nevertheless, EDDC should not have let it out to a 'non-folkie' councillor with his own and rather obvious agenda at what was still a relatively early stage of formulating the fringe festival. Indeed, the consent to Councillor Hughes was given on 29 September - weeks before the first 'real' meeting of all persons hoping to organise artistic participation in 2005, on 23 October 2004.

All of this comes during an election year for Devon County Council at which Councillor Hughes is expected to seek re-election. The old adage 'all publicity is good publicity' may apply here.

David Pagett said to me " it is difficult to refuse someone who wants to use a public venue for something like this especially when no-one else wanted it" EDDC could easily have seen what was likely to happen. Indeed weeks previously, I had discussed with Mr Pagett that having a week of 'non-folkie' entertainment in the arena of a lower grade and of an essentially different nature than seen in 2004 could debase the whole event. He agreed with this and said it was "a real worry but what can we do?"

Various adjectives could be used to describe EDDC's performance so far - pathetic, inward looking, lacklustre and timid would be amongst the more polite.

Anyone with an ounce of foresight could have planned at least for car parking, camping, a marquee in Blackmore gardens for dancing and workshops and centralised public liability cover. At present (as of mid October 2004), it is being left to organisers of each event or series of events to organise their own insurance cover - unless they all agree to get together and somehow arrange a package deal. Artists and performers really have better things to do with their time. Many are simply folk music and dance enthusiasts with 'day jobs' that are far removed from organising festivals in an increasingly litigious age.

EDDC could have offered far more help - and the steering group could have shown more political acumen as well as inviting the involvement of supportive and highly qualified local people soon after the meeting of June 2004.

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