We’re a festival city with loads of events, but this is at risk. I’m sure most of us love to take part in various free events, and we’re happy to pay for lots of events too when the ticket promises entertainment, culture, attractions and feeds our interests.
However there can be downsides too: noise, litter, disruption and closure of spaces take place. I saw this first hand as a member of the Downs committee – the Massive Attack concert last year paid tens of thousands of pounds into our funds to manage and improve the wonderful open space, but caused worry, disruption and disturbance for local residents.
We also saw the damage to Queen Square in 2015, when Arcadia brought their spectacular show to the city, attracted many fans, but also caused weeks of damage to the turf. The city events team do charge for this eventuality and are skilled at setting fees and charges in a way that covers costs and risks.
Every major event has many conditions and requirements around access, protection of nature, clean-up costs etc.
At a local level, community groups pay as well. My own ward has the non-profit May Fair on Redland Green each year. The community organisers put in immense effort to raise funds for maintaining the green and for a charity each year. There are dozens of community stalls, entertainers, and thousands of local residents attend. This helps build a sense of community and strengthens our neighbourhood, as well as protecting and improving our valuable open space.
When the city doubled event fees overnight, it caused immense difficulty for the group as all their budgets and stall charges were already set. We had to negotiate a one off waiver of the doubled rate or the charitable event would’ve failed.
I also want all events in Bristol to exemplify our European Green Capital ambitions and to build on the legacy of the excellent Green Events guidance, drafted for the City in 2015.
This shows how small, large and indoor events can be more sustainable and should be a basic requirement for all events in the city, though, embarrassingly, it’s missing from council events policy. Higher fees for community groups takes negotiation so that organisers can build the costs into their plans and budget.
When the city’s renowned VegFest event – a beacon of low impact lifestyle and inspiration to thousands in the city and beyond – found fees had doubled this year, it bust their budget. The organiser Tim Barford has insisted that while they were assured certain fees were negotiable, there was in fact no willingness to negotiate from the council, leading to a breakdown in trust and the event almost being cancelled.
With their standoff with the council now over, VegFest may be able to remain in the city, but should it have taken such a campaign of non-payment? Surely the council should be open to practical negotiations?
So I believe we need to rethink our management of open space. We need some flexibility in how fees are set, in recognition of community building, local economy benefits, and the cultural offer we have. I want to see an intelligent approach to negotiation and a strategy developed that does not close down events that the city should be proud of.
I recognise that budgets are fragile at present, but let’s not allow this to damage opportunities for community building and crush cultural diversity in Bristol. Our open spaces should not be reserved for commercial or corporate events that favour global brands at the expense of access to parks. Let’s have a strategy that works for us all.
Martin Fodor is a Green Party councillor for the Redland ward.