Music festivals are back in London’s parks. But has anything changed?
Following the removal of coronavirus restrictions, music festivals have returned to London’s parks. Several events were strategically shifted to late August or September to increase the chances they could go ahead and now Londoners are basking in late summer sunshine whilst enjoying a belated festival season. Some of London’s biggest festivals including All Points East, Wireless, Mighty Hoopla, Hospitality and Junction 2 are all scheduled to take place in the three week period from Aug 27-Sept 12.
Renewed appreciation for parks and green space during the coronavirus pandemic led to speculation that park authorities might be more reluctant to hire their parks out to festival organisers. But big holes in local authority finances have provided an added incentive to secure lucrative deals with promoters. Lambeth Council justified the return of music festivals to Brockwell Park in September 2021 by advertising the £200,000 it generated to subsidise council services. The same Council earned £300,00 by hiring parts of Clapham Common to Festival Republic for three one day festivals the previous month.
Although festivals are back, things are not quite the same as they were pre-pandemic. Several London festivals have moved location, with a notable shift to new South London venues. The UK’s biggest urban music festival, Wireless, has moved from Finsbury Park to Crystal Palace Park. Another former Finsbury Park festival – Hospitality – has relocated to Beckenham Place Park. Meanwhile, the innovative relocation of Field Day to an industrial site in 2019 was reversed: this popular festival returned to Victoria Park at the end of August. Whilst the organisers of Field Day understandably felt the need to take their event outdoors during a pandemic, one of London’s other major festivals was taken inside. Junction 2, which had previously taken place in Boston Manor Park, was staged in warehouses at Tobacco Dock.
The return of festivals has been accompanied by the return of local objections to the disrupted park access they cause. Opposition to festivals has intensified perhaps because people had got used to parks without organised events. A recent report by the DCMS Select Committee acknowledged the negative impacts that park based music festivals can have on local communities, including the way that ticketed festivals have squeezed out free events. There is also evidence that this trend has resurfaced. Objections to Brockwell Park’s new event programme for 2021 were heightened because, whilst the (free to access) Lambeth Country Show was cancelled, a long weekend of (expensive) music festivals was allowed to go ahead.
Opposition is particularly fierce in the case of Clapham Common: objectors to festivals staged here claim that parts of the Common have been illegally fenced off, as the Council has not gained necessary permissions from Government. A campaign group is currently raising funds to launch a legal challenge on this basis. Enclosing urban commons is more complicated and controversial than enclosing municipal parklands, and consent to erect structures on common land needs to be approved by the Secretary of State for the Environment. The festival site had only just reopened to the public after it was cordoned off to allow it to recover from damage inflicted by previous events. A problematic track record of past festivals, plus plans to stage multiple large scale events on Clapham Common over the next five years, have fuelled opposition.
Pre-pandemic, London’s most contested music festivals were those staged in Finsbury Park. In 2021, a more modest programme of events was organised here. Instead of staging festivals for 50,000 people on the south facing side of the park, a smaller site to the north was used for a series of mini-festivals. In late August, the Park staged Latino Life in the Park, a free music festival showcasing London’s Latin cultures. This festival attracted thousands of people to its 3 stages and, significantly, no fences or gates were erected, increasing accessibility and reducing the amount of time needed to set up and take down temporary structures. This festival proved that it is still possible to stage inclusive music festivals in London’s parks. Park users are currently waiting to hear whether 2021 will provide the template for future programming in Finsbury Park, or whether Wireless and other large scale events will return in 2022. The recent announcement of a big George Ezra concert here in July 2022 suggest the latter is more likely.
With some reports of COVID19 outbreaks following festivals staged in other UK locations, and with case numbers in the UK still very high, there are also concerns about the safety of returning festivals. Measures have been taken by organisers to minimise risks, with attendees having to show evidence of negative test results or double vaccination. However, checks seem to be very light touch with minimal scrutiny of vaccine certificates and test results at entry gates. Requests to wear masks in queues and other riskier settings are ignored and there seems to be a degree of complacency amongst festival organisers and attendees about the ongoing risks posed by coronavirus.
Given the difficulties faced by people working in the music and events sectors over the past eighteen months, it may seem a little churlish to highlight opposition to park-based music festivals at the current time. However, the past 18 months was an opportunity to address some of the issues associated with staging these events, and to engage with local communities about their concerns. Evidence from the truncated 2021 season suggests not much has changed. There remain opportunities to rethink when festivals are scheduled, where they take place and how consultations are conducted. There is an urgent need for more transparency about park hire fees paid to local authorities, and how that money is spent. Finally, given ongoing legal challenges, there is a need to revisit legislation designed to limit the amount of space and time that festival structures can occupy. It is great to see music festivals back, and it is important to give people opportunities to have fun together. But the pandemic has also reminded us of the value of public parks, and when festivals are staged in these settings, measures need to be taken to prioritise public access.