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Posted: 26.06.24

Race for Downing Street: As politicians fight, our festivals are dying

Any politics lover might find the current Race for Number 10 a festival of sorts – but the rest of the nation's festival scene is looking dire.

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Ok, so the leagues of wellied revellers trudging to the fields of Worthy Farm as I write might paint a different picture - but I’m not talking about Glastonbury or the big ones (though with Barclays and Baillie Gifford pulling sponsorship from some of the UK’s major music and literary festivals, this is a watching brief). The damage is being done to our local festivals – our grassroots community celebrations.

Over the last few months, festivals up and down the country have announced closure or indefinite postponement - some after decades. In 2023, the Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) reported that one in six UK festivals had ended since the pandemic, with numbers falling to under 500. In 2019, before Covid, the AIF counted almost 1,000 festivals taking place across the country. At least 50 have been lost since the start of this year alone.

There is a cocktail of reasons for this: Brexit, Covid, the cost of living, changing audience consumption trends, an evolving music industry and a hamstrung public sector. AIF projects that without adequate support, the UK festival scene could be decimated within the next year. On any level, this is a crisis.

And it should be seen as such by whoever forms the next Government.

Whether dancing around the full moon at Stonehenge or protesting war through music and good vibes, festivals are found in nearly all cultures and societies. They promote civic cohesion, they spur regeneration and they create place. I’m pretty sure all three of those should be on the wish list for any political party.

There is a long history of the governments using festivals for exactly these purposes.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was one of the most significant festivals in the history of the UK. Conceived by Prince Albert, with essential support and endorsement from the British Government and private sector, it showcased the industrial, technological and cultural advancements of Victorian Britain to the world. It was housed in the Crystal Palace (originally in Hyde Park), which was in its own right an architectural marvel, and set a precedent for the design of large-scale public spaces and exhibition buildings.

A century later, in 1951 The Festival of Britain celebrated British achievements in arts, science and industry, and promoted civic unity in a war-weary nation. The idea was conceived in 1943 by the Royal Society of Arts (RSA), but it gained real momentum when Labour came to power in 1945, with Deputy Prime Minister Herbert Morrison playing a significant role in its development and execution. Morrison saw the festival as a means to inspire the public and foster a sense of national pride. It led to the redevelopment of London's bomb-damaged Royal Festival Hall and the subsequent transformation of the South Bank into a world-famous cultural hub.

More recently, the Millennium celebrations, Queen Elizabeth II’s various Jubilee celebrations and the London 2012 Olympics show how festivals make places, laying down shared heritage, and can create lasting legacies in terms of infrastructure and communities.

These are all big examples. What does it matter if that little village fete doesn't run next year, or if Towersey Festival, the UK's longest running independent festival, has to close after six decades?

It matters because festivals are proof of the importance of shared cultural experiences, of social cohesion, and a collective sense of identity. And none more so than grassroots local festivals, put on by people who are brought together because of where they live. It should be a warning bell to anyone in government that this has been allowed to erode to such an extent under their watch.

Local festivals need money. They don’t have big brand sponsors; they often only get off the ground with funding from the local authority which – given the state of the public finances, is increasingly unstable. Here’s where the private sector can help.

There are some excellent examples where developers have seen the value of festivals and invested in them. In 2025, LCA client Knight Dragon will be going into the 10th year of hosting Urban Village Fete at its development Greenwich Peninsula - a free one-day festival with true village fete values at its heart and global DJs next to local grassroots talent. Another client, Related Argent puts on 12 days of free live music in Coal Drops Yard with King's Cross Summer Sounds. Team London Bridge BID brings community fete values to the middle of London with ‘In A Field By A Bridge’ and, further afield, Landsec and Peel Media have just enjoyed their second successful year of We Invented The Weekend at MediaCity in Manchester.

These initiatives bring all the good stuff to their owners' land: footfall, revenue, awareness and positive sentiment. It’s not reinventing the wheel – it’s just helping people do what they already want to do to: dance, eat, and be together.

The next Government needs to take seriously the importance of reversing the trends of recent years. Protecting existing – and encouraging more – festivals is key to bringing the country together, and mitigating against the homogenisation of our places and spaces. But there should be a move from the built environment too – to bridge that gap, make it easier for people to celebrate their neighbourhoods, and bring a bit of the Great British Festival spirit back.