Is the party over? Local events and festivals in times of austerity
This blog post is based on Professor Wood’s book chapter, The value of local authority involvement in events and festivals: Community consequences, appearing in the 2017 book, The Value of Events.
The ability of events and festivals to make a city or region really stand out as unique has declined through over-use and their economic benefit is now questionable. This is due largely to austerity measures but also gives a wake-up call to local, and national, government. This is a time to take stock of the true economic and social value of events.
Back-to-roots, culturally-authentic festivals, where public involvement is embedded in the process, could be the way forward. With these kinds of events, the focus is on bringing about social change - when economic benefit is less achievable - and honing in on community involvement, back to basics, and less spending on ‘frivolities’.
It used to be that the value of events was found in the prosperity they brought to deprived areas, in bringing together communities, and in improving quality of life for residents. So surely they should be a vital part of the service provided by local government, especially in difficult times. Are they not needed now more than ever? But, if they were only ever ‘spare money spent on partying’, then surely this is an area that should be cut.
There is some evidence to suggest that harder times lead to more creativity, thoughtfulness and a return to grass roots which can benefit local communities. But, the shift to dependence on private sector funding negatively impacts the cultural integrity of events and limits their accessibility and inclusivity – such events need to generate income, often through admission charges.
But the greatest tension is in the reduced support from local government to event organisers. There is more need now than ever to engage communities and support events which are community-led - and free to attend - but far less expertise is available to guide and encourage them. The funded positions that remain tend to be those with a clear economic remit – with less thought to social needs.
Evaluating the success of events can be a challenge – especially with the changing demands from funders. Unfortunately, austerity will pull much-needed evaluation in two ways: by creating a need for more evidence to prove value and justify expenditure while limiting the resources for that evaluation to even take place.
We appear to be at a critical point in terms of the effect of austerity – as policies and cuts are bedded in – the focus may be on community and social issues, or may fall towards the economic and commercial. But without meaningful evaluation, it will be hard to know what has been lost (or gained). It will be interesting to see what the picture is in another 10 years.
Emma Wood is Professor in Events and Experiential Marketing and Research Lead for the UK Centre for Event Management at Leeds Beckett University. Emma specialises in the impact of events on social change within communities and on shared memory creation.