The Festival Factor

Helen Stiles asks whether rural music festivals have any benefit for the local community


This summer the countryside has bopped to the beat of hundreds of music festivals, from gigs in fields to events covering an area of countryside the size of Bath. But will locals be happily tapping their feet, or stamping them over the noise and mayhem invading their rural idyll?


Glastonbury is Britain’s most famous festival, founded by dairy farmer Michael Eavis on Worthy Farm in Pilton, Somerset. Harvey Siggs, leader of Mendip District Council, has worked with Glastonbury for 20 years, not always harmoniously. “Before 2000 the perimeter fence was easily penetrated,” he says. “Large numbers of people were moving through Pilton 24 hours a day, including gangs out to steal and trade drugs, making locals feel very insecure.”  Eventually Mendip refused the licence and the so-called ring of steel secure fencing was erected. “Villagers no longer feel threatened,” says Harvey. “Though some locals still feel like prisoners in their own homes.”

Dan Mountain of Somerset and Avon Constabulary adds: “When close to 200,000 people descend on a quiet village like Pilton, it obviously has an impact. During the festival we have a 24-hour office for residents and a neighbourhood policing team.” Reported incidents in the village are down to single figures.

When the Latitude Festival was launched at Henham Park, near Southwold, Suffolk, locals like Rosemary Parry braced themselves for an influx of festival-goers. “We had no idea the festival would be as successful as it is, so naturally there were concerns,” she says. “It’s a sleepy village so there was a lot of prejudice towards all these young people coming here, but I’ve never known any trouble.”

Andy Tickner lives across the river from the Isle of Wight Festival site in Newport. He thinks the festival rejuvenates the island, but ferries become overwhelmed with festival traffic. “I don’t bother going to work on Friday as I would get home so late,” he says. He’s disappointed, too, that the festival no longer release early bird tickets for islanders. “The perks we got for putting up with the traffic, noise and the influx of 50,000 people have gone.”

The returns for communities that host festivals are a great antidote to the inconveniences.  Recent economic reports have revealed they leave a money trail that benefits the whole community. Steve Heap, director of FolkArts England, says: “There’s a long string of beneficiaries, from shops and pubs to local charities. According to an Arts Council report from 2002, folk festivals alone generated £82m for local economies throughout England.”

An economic impact report published by Mendip District Council in April this year revealed that Glastonbury Festival brings £52m into the area and has a huge impact on the local economy. The benefits for Pilton are enormous: they have a new village hall, post office and working men’s club, and Michael Eavis has built 18 houses for rent by local families on his land. “We call it the Daisy Chain Housing Policy,” he says. “We want to roll it out nationally. Affordable social housing for the countryside is one of my things for this year.”

Many festivals have followed Glastonbury’s philanthropic lead. Harmony Blake is event coordinator for the Latitude Festival. “We run a community ticket scheme giving residents day tickets for a reduced price; the money raised goes to the local parish council, she explains. “It’s win-win because we want residents to come to the event and money is injected back into their community.” At the Leeds Festival, this scheme raised £200,000 for a huge variety of local projects.

Community enterprise is the theme at Cropredy, Oxfordshire, where Fairport’s Cropredy Convention has been held since 1980. Private enterprise is very much frowned upon, but village groups serve breakfasts at various venues, and takings from these have helped upgrade the local sports club. Villager and bellringer Jon Beer says: “We live opposite one of the campsites across the river, so we built a bridge and asked for donations to the church bell fund to cross it. We also offered panoramic views of the festival from the bell tower for a fiver. This year we can show them the bells they helped to pay for.”

Festivals can have some surprising spin-offs. When the Hydro Connect Music Festival launched in Inveraray last year, organiser Geoff Ellis was keen to get Argyll food producers on board. “We’ve really raised the bar of festival catering, and it’s benefited the local economy,” he declares.

“We had Loch Fyne oysters, cheeses from Mull, organic beef and lamb, venison burgers, hot grilled smoked salmon, a malt whisky bar and a festival brew, created by the local microbrewery.” At first, few suppliers thought they would make any money, but festival-goers continued to buy produce by mail order long after the event.

Also acting local is Rob Da Bank, organiser of Bestival, a boutique festival for a younger crowd, which has been running on the Isle of Wight for the last five years. “From the outset we sourced everything we could from the island: food, drink, staff, bands and DJs,” he says. At Lulworth, Dorset, Rob is launching Camp Bestival with a similar local emphasis, including a tea tent run by the Women’s Institute and the town crier hosting the main stage. He says: “It’s very important to us to put both money and love back into the area.”

So could festivals be a money-spinner for your rural economy? Michael Eavis doesn’t think so: “I don’t think festivals are really viable long-term; there are 500 other events going on during Glastonbury. With so much competition and costs going up, I honestly wouldn’t recommend it.”

Despite this, Steve Heap believes that festival culture will survive. “Festivals have been part of rural communities for thousands of years and I don’t think anything has really changed. They have always had a positive social, artistic and economic impact on the community.”


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