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FINANCIAL GRANTS: Councillors clash over Festival of Thrift

FINANCIAL GRANTS: Councillors clash over Festival of Thrift

The Festival of Thrift has become one of the biggest annual events, Image: LDRS

It’s one of the biggest festivals held in the region each year and of national repute.

The Festival of Thrift, which takes place in Kirkleatham, Redcar, next weekend, is a large-scale celebration of sustainable living attracting thousands of visitors annually.

So why are there discontented rumblings among members at Redcar and Cleveland Council? Stuart Arnold reports.

What’s this about?

At a recent meeting of the full council a motion moved by Councillor Billy Wells and seconded by Councillor Christopher Gallacher – both independents – sought to ensure that the council did not provide any further financial grants to the festival unless they were subject to a “full cost benefit analysis and assessed fairly against applications for grants received from other charities or community groups”.

It added: “Given the current financial climate, it may be better that these funds could be better spent supporting local not-for-profit charities and local talent and it is important that any decision about grant funding is made transparently and fairly.”

The motion provoked a lengthy and passionate debate among councillors and was successful, being narrowly passed by 22 votes to 20, with council leader Mary Lanigan, who leads an independent/Liberal Democrat ruling coalition on the local authority, voting in favour.

Opposition largely came from Labour group members – the council having previously been under Labour party control when the festival moved from its former home in Darlington to Redcar in 2016.

At that time the council was said to have offered twice as much – £80,000 – as was previously being paid by Darlington Council towards the event.

What financial support does the council provide?

The council is contributing £75,000 towards the running costs of this year’s festival, with a report having described this as being £10,000 down on that paid in previous years [the 2020 event was not held in person because of the pandemic].

It has been estimated the 2019 event provided a £1.3m boost to the local economy with the council previously describing the Festival of Thrift as “vitally important” in raising the profile of the area.

Festival of Thrift

The Festival of Thrift: Image: Teesside Live

What about financial support from elsewhere?

The festival is part-funded by the Arts Council England and this year there was also a £50,000 contribution from a ‘festival recovery fund’ provided by the Tees Valley Combined Authority.

The festival is operated by a community interest company and organisers state any profits are reinvested into future events.

Its 2018-19 annual accounts show it received more than £240,000 in grants in total.

What was said during the debate?

Cllr Wells said the council provided staff at no cost to help with the organisation of the festival over the two days.

He said: “Redcar and Cleveland staff are removed from their normal jobs to assist the festival, this is very commendable, but what about the wards, where is the priority?

“When they are supporting the Festival of Thrift our wards get neglected.”

He added: “We have in our borough a wealth of talent who don’t receive our support and those that do certainly don’t receive anywhere near the assistance given to the Festival of Thrift.

“I have asked several times to see receipts and a paper trail in terms of where money is spent, the best answer I can get so far is that it brings an enormous amount of money to the economy, perhaps this could be backed up by hard evidence.”

Cllr Wells said it was a “simple motion to protect residents and find out where money was being spent”.

Cllr Gallacher said the council was “getting very little back” for its support towards the festival.

He said: “I don’t see the £1.3m being brought back into the borough.

“We need accountability for residents and other concerned individuals and should be thinking about how we spend our money better.”

But Councillor Carl Quartermain, leader of the Labour group, said there was a full cost-benefit analysis already provided to members year-on-year.

He said: “The festival is assessed fairly [for a financial contribution] and this motion is pointless and very possibly harmful.

“Along with everything else we do in this borough, there is scrutiny as to whether it is value for money and the answer always comes back as yes.

“It [the festival] is very popular and unlike any other event we have this in the borough and anywhere in the UK.”

Cllr Quartermain, who read out several positive testimonies from people he said participated in the festival, added: “The first year it was brought to the borough the economic impact was more than half-a-million pounds and it supported ten full-time jobs, and this has increased year-on-year.

“The knock-on effect to the economy is clear to see.

“My fear is that motions like this will damage our relationship with organisers and others who may perceive this borough as being inward looking and not somewhere to invest in.”

Liberal Democrat Alison Barnes, the deputy leader of the council, said  the festival helped towards the council’s corporate plan which included a commitment to have an “exciting cultural and visitor offer for all to enjoy”.

She said: “Another priority is climate change and [the festival] highlights and strengthens our commitment for change, but also informs and educates people.

“More than 71% of people consulted in 2019 agreed that the festival inspired them to save money by recycling, upcycling and re-using more.

“The festival has been a huge success at both a local and national level and is deemed a highly sought after cultural asset.

“It creates opportunities for local artists and community groups who are programmed into the festival every year.”

Cllr Barnes said the council’s investment in 2019 equated to a £2.26 subsidy per person who attended and helped to lever in grants from other sources.

Council leader Mary Lanigan claimed some local businesses were quoted £600 for the cost of pitches, which as small businesses, they could not afford.

She said: “Nobody is saying the Festival of Thrift does not bring in all these people.

“But we need to look at this across the borough, taking into account residents’ groups and other community groups and their needs.

“If the motion is passed it would be a really good idea for members of this council to sit together in a panel and have a look so the money is spread across the borough.”

Independent councillor Steve Kay said: “This motion does not say let’s abolish the Festival of Thrift, it says we just want to check what’s going on and ensure we are getting value for money and that our people are getting sufficient value.

“It needs a dose of looking at.”

Liberal Democrat councillor Karen King said the festival “got better every year” and appealed to members to “look at the bigger picture”.

She said: “It is huge in all aspects, it is not just about the funding and the staff, it brings a lot more to the borough than just those two days.”

Former council leader, Labour’s Sue Jeffrey said: “The Festival of Thrift is great and I go every year, the family love it.

“It provides experiences that people who flock to the festival are entitled to have, it might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but it is different and good and popular, and puts this borough on the map.

“Leave the Festival of Thrift alone, let it carry on doing what it is doing, making us a place that shows that wants to showcase culture, events, thriftiness and just being open to everybody.”

Conservative Vera Rider also repeated the claim that local businesses were being squeezed out of the festival.

She said: “If you walk around the stalls that are selling things you can see the prices are absolutely exorbitant, that’s because they have to make the money.

“We can do better, that profit that is going to another company could come to us and our residents, we have an events team and could expand the event and do it ourselves.”

Councillor Alec Brown, for Labour, said: “Surely the controlling group of the administration should already be making sure funds are dispensed fairly and that Thrift is managed effectively, I have no idea why this motion has been put before us.”

The debate lasted for about an hour, with Redcar and Cleveland Mayor Carole Morgan, who chairs full council meetings, having to warn some members for interrupting and talking over each other.

What else happened at the meeting?

Member of the public Denise Nesbitt, who asked several questions of the council, suggested local performers and entertainers were not being given a chance to perform at the festival.

She said: “There are lots of people who could perform and are not given a chance, and instead outsiders are brought in at the cost of our carbon footprint.”

She also questioned why the council was supplying “manpower” to the festival in the form of street cleaners and other services.

In a reply, cabinet member Alison Barnes said the council had a strategic partnership with the festival which included an agreement that the land used at the Kirkleatham Museum and Gardens was in good condition and the grass cut to ensure the land was fit for purpose.

She added: “The Festival of Thrift manages and contracts a private traffic management company to look after traffic requirements at the event at no additional cost to the authority.

“Marketing and PR is also managed by a freelance company employed by the festival at no additional cost to the authority.”

Ms Nesbitt suggested prices had increased “dramatically” at the festival and again said that local businesses were being priced out.

Cllr Barnes replied: “The pitch prices reflect the scale and success of the festival, it is a national, large scale festival, which attracts an array of high quality products.”

What have the organisers said?

A spokeswoman for the festival did not respond directly to the council motion, but disputed the cost of commercial pitches, as referenced by some council members, which she said began at £180 each.

She said: “Whilst being a national and highly sought after trader opportunity Festival of Thrift remains one of the most competitively priced festivals in the region when compared to events with a similar footfall and profile.

“For example, pitches at Bishop Auckland and Seaham Food Festivals are around 20% more expensive.

“The pitch rates have been held at the same rate as 2019, due to the challenging year for traders with regards to covid.

“The pricing structure has been re-worked to be more transparent and to reflect the cost of buying in infrastructure such as stalls, power and any cabling required.

“Some local partners and charities have been offered half price stalls and the council has an allocation of six free stalls for promoting departmental priorities.”

The spokeswoman said consideration was given to local groups in  the choice of artists and performers taking part in the event.

She said: “Festival of Thrift is proud to be a Redcar-based organisation with offices at The Palace Hub on the seafront.

“Plans and projects take place all year round and we engage with our communities well before the event.

“We have been working with local community groups for many months on festival-related projects, including a public art project Bridge2Bamboo, a public speaking project called Young People’s Podium, a community choir Phoenix Voices based in Saltburn, and Redcar-based community arts organisation WhippetUp.”

She said 35% of performers and artists came from Redcar and Cleveland, with the same proportion coming from the Tees Valley, 15% from the North-East and 15% from the rest of the UK.

The spokeswoman added: “Festival of Thrift is a community interest not-for-profit organisation.

“Our mission is to carry out activities to benefit the community and to advance public awareness of sustainable living through festivals, exhibitions and other activities.

“Every penny we raise goes back into organising the annual festival at Kirkleatham and activities with local communities throughout the year.

“Festival of Thrift CIC is responsible for running the event at Kirkleatham,  which includes managing the car parking.

“We provide opportunities for volunteers to work alongside the festival team at the event and they are managed by our team.”

:: The Festival of Thrift takes place over the weekend of September 25/26 in the grounds of Kirkleatham Museum.

For further details of this year’s event visit www.festivalofthrift.co.uk


Words: Stuart Arnold, Local Democracy Reporter

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