Festivals face cuts backlash

A BOMBSHELL has been dropped on Northumberland’s biggest free music festival, after council chiefs announced they would start charging for services normally offered for free.

It means the organisers behind Alnwick International Music Festival will have to find thousands of pounds for extra manpower for the likes of street cleaning, road closures and the erection of stage and stalls, which were traditionally provided as a benefit in kind by the former Alnwick District Council.

And it will be the same story for many other smaller events held in towns and villages like Rothbury, Seahouses, Amble and Wooler, following the decision by the unitary authority to budget future provision of “top-up” services as a source of income.

Alnwick’s eight-day celebration of culture, song and dance draws huge crowds of visitors to the town each year, to see performers from around the world show off their talents in the Market Place.

But at the town council’s monthly meeting on Thursday, members were stunned to hear that there had been no discussion between the authority and the festival committee about the changes, as Northumberland County Council still has to set its schedule of charges.

As a result, the organisers have not budgeted for any extra costs this year, leaving them just a few months to raise the money themselves – and they don’t yet know how much.

Festival chairman John Moodie said: “We heard rumours over the last year but there has been no word from County Hall, then suddenly they drop this on us out of the blue. It will have a massive impact on us, because we work on a tight budget which is planned more than a year in advance.

“It costs us £45,000 to stage the festival, all of which is raised from donations and managed entirely by volunteers. If the county goes ahead with this policy, we will go over our budget this year.”

The decision to charge will also have an impact on the annual Food Festival, staged in September, and the Christmas lights switch-on celebrations in November.

Chairman of Alnwick Chamber of Trade, Carlo Biagioni, said: “This is absolutely terrible for the town – it’s shameful. The music festival and the food festival are both so important to us, so it’s very disappointing the way the county council has sprung this on the organisers.

“They must realise that these events are organised by the community and bring in a great number of visitors. Any business will tell you that they have a very big impact on the vitality of the town.”

At the county council’s Area Committee North meeting in Rothbury on Monday, Terry Garnick, neighbourhood services manager for the northern area, said the authority wanted to create a ‘level playing field’ for all community events that it supports across Northumberland.

“We have a range of very expensive equipment, including the stage used by the music festival, which we hope to provide at no cost, but we want to try to establish some support to cover our wages and labour costs,” he said. “They are the only costs we are trying to meet. We are preparing a paper on some interim arrangements which will provide some cushioning to those costs.

“It doesn’t seem reasonable that some get these services for free and others don’t. We are looking for that balance.”

But Alnwick town councillor Alan Symmonds said: “The proposal to start charging for in-kind acts comes as a bombshell, particularly with no consultation or dialogue.

“We are asking the council to put this on hold until there has been debate, which will give organisations a fighting chance to set appropriate budgets in the future.

“We have no idea what we will be asked to pay for and the festival begins in four months. This is a kick in the face.”

Rothbury’s county councillor Steven Bridgett said popular events in his ward – including the annual music festival, food festival and street fair – would struggle to meet higher costs.

“The former district council understood the value of these events at a local level, not only to local people and visitors but to the economy,” he said. “It’s a crying shame that the county council is so far removed it doesn’t seem to share that view.

“What this policy does is undermine

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community efforts. Many events could be forced to scale back if they can’t meet these added costs.”

Ian Clayton, from Seahouses Christmas Lights Committee, added: “If this is going to cost a lot of money, rather than being a nominal fee, then we may have to completely rethink the annual switch-on.”

Area committee chairman, Coun Pat Scott, said she would raise the issue with the council’s executive next week.