Back to articles • Back to home page

Mud, music and money
Local Government Chronicle –1 June 2006

Rock festivals are no longer events to be feared. With a bit of planning councils can turn them to their advantage. Mark Smulian tunes in

"By the time we got to Woodstock we were half a million strong."

Joni Mitchell's celebratory 1969 song about one of the first and largest rock festivals must have seemed more like a threat to councils dealing with Woodstock's smaller British cousins.

Tensions between festival goers and officialdom marked the early 1970s, but since then festivals have become a routine part of summer, and important to some local economies.

Councils have stopped regarding them with suspicion and looked instead at how to make them safe and successful, reap benefits for local businesses and minimise their adverse impact on the host community.

The logistics of large festivals are fearsome and take months of planning.

There are thousands of people to be transported to and from the site, accommodated, fed, watered, provided with toilets and washing facilities. There are noise levels to control, temporary structures to be built, celebrities to manage, traffic to be diverted and a massive clean-up once the guitars have been unplugged.

Everything from environmental health to economic development can be involved when a festival comes to town, but councils that plan well can gain benefits. Here's what some of the best have been doing:

Mass movement

Glastonbury is taking a break this year, but usually Mendip DC is at the sharp end of a multi-agency effort to ensure the event passes off smoothly. This is a tall order when some 150,000 people descend on Michael Eavis' farmland for the weekend.

Chris Malcolmson, senior environmental health officer, says the main issues are to ensure that traffic can reach the site without overwhelming rural lanes, and that people arriving by rail can be reliably ferried the 10 miles to the site.

The idea is to get people there and back as quickly as possible with minimum impact on the surrounding area.

Mendip works with Somerset CC and the police to close smaller roads to through traffic so that festival-bound cars must use the main A37 and A361.

Mr Malcolmson says: "We are the lead authority in major incident planning so we approach this like any other piece of emergency planning, looking at what contingency there is if anything goes wrong."

There are some 35,000-40,000 cars, but drivers tend to stagger their arrival times.

The real problem comes when the festival ends and the middle of the Monday sees "everyone trying to leave at the same time".

Mendip is yet to crack this problem, but "things are getting better each time", Mr Malcolmson says.

Train passengers arrive at Castle Cary and the festival organisers provide a fleet of buses to take them to and from the site as part of their licence agreement. "I think that takes up every spare bus in the region," he says.

What a load of rubbish

A festival the size of Glastonbury produces a quantity of refuse to match, despite the emphasis on recycling on the site.

The festival is on private farmland and the organisers run the clean-up operation, though the council sets a 25% net recycling rate.

But Mr Malcolmson notes: "If you have 150,000 people coming and going that will generate a lot of litter, it is inevitable."

One means to mitigate the problem is the small army of volunteers who are given free entry to the festival in return for time spent afterwards helping to clear up.

Mendip requires a waste management plan from the organisers as part of the event licence, but finds that Glastonbury's strong 'green' ambience helps to reduce rubbish and littering.

There are separate collections for food waste and compostable waste, though with so many people present it isn't always possible to manage these, the council's debrief report on the 2005 festival states.

This report found waste disposal generally worked well, but also noted a lack of any systematic approach to litter collection.

Waste impact outside is minimised by everything for festival goers being provided on-site. There is no need for them to visit local towns, and so most problems are contained.

Why not stay?

The Isle of Wight hosted one of Britain's earliest and most famous rock festivals in 1970, and some people who attended are now neighbours of council leader Andy Sutton (Con) in his Freshwater constituency.

Festivals - not just music ones but also maritime events like Cowes Week - have helped attract a different type of visitor to the island from its traditional seaside holiday market.

The council uses festivals to boost the island's vital tourism businesses, and to improve the local economy long-term.

Next weekend's Isle of Wight festival will bring in some 20m from 60,000 visitors, Cllr Sutton says, and Cowes Week takings hit 26m.

Since the island is accessible only by ferry it is easy for the council to tell how many people visit and when. As it knows mid-June is a slack period; it has encouraged the music festival to use that slot.

"The festival has many long-term benefits," he says. "It brings younger and better educated people to the island, which needs to attract more graduates because for years the best and brightest have left."

The council is part of the island's economic partnership, which is working on a project to use the festival to attract economically active people to settle by highlighting the island's employment opportunities and pleasant environment. There are maritime and aerospace engineering and technology industries looking for graduates and a cluster of renewable energy firms has developed.

Mind where you go

When 70,000 people descend on a rural site in Perth & Kinross Council's for the T in the Park music festival, there is an extra logistical problem.

The site is in the catchment area of Loch Leven, a protected lake used to feed reservoirs, and its water courses must not be polluted.

That means none of the hundreds of portable lavatories installed can be allowed to leak and all waste liquid must be removed by tanker.

Environmental health manager Tom Drydone starts planning each March for the mid-June event. His team has to cope with nearly 70,000 people: "the equivalent of putting the town of Perth in a field from Friday to Monday lunchtime", he says.

The Purple book for event organisation, produced by the Health & Safety Executive, specifies toilet requirements, although organisers can adapt it to their requirements.

The site is served by a main which supplies cold water to washbasins and to standpipes for drinking, which his team also oversees.

"My staff are there making sure the loos are installed, are not overflowing and are the right standard," he says.

Food, health and safety manager Jim Dixon supervises four major catering outlets and some 90 individual food stands.

He says: "The organisers will close anyone we ask them to. We could use our legal powers, but those are cumbersome so we rely on our agreement with the organisers."

I want you for your mind

Kingston upon Thames LBC covers one of the most affluent areas of the country and is also home to a university. These factors may account for its highbrow festivities, which include a Readers' Festival for literary figures, a Festival of the Voice for singers and Think in Kingston, billed as a 'festival of ideas'.

Colin Bloxham, principal arts officer, says the Readers' Festival emerged from the council's policy of rebranding Kingston as a cultural centre rather than a commuter suburb.

The festival has grown from its 2002 start to attract participants that include authors Sarah Waters and Helen Dunmore, pundit Matthew Parris, actor Prunella Scales, theatre director Sir Peter Hall, and writer Alain de Botton.

"It gives Kingston a very good level of cultural exposure," Mr Bloxham says.

The festivals play a role in the local economy beyond the immediate boost from attendees.

Mr Bloxham says: "It makes it a more desirable locality for residents and businesses, and attracts national attention."