In the wake of the US government shutdown, Stuart Wood investigates how government policies are affecting festivals and outdoor events across the UK.
The USA has just come out its extended government shutdown, which lasted a total of 35 days through December and January.
That makes it, by some distance, the longest shutdown in the country’s history.
The disagreement was over budgets, with President Trump demanding $5.7bn to fund his wall along the Mexican border, and Democrats standing firmly against him.
The shutdown is estimated to have cost the country $11bn in the short-term. It meant that many federal departments were unable to pay their employees or were forced to close, affecting everything from airport security and law enforcement to national parks and immigration courts.
The shutdown also impacted a number of public events across the country. The St Patrick’s Day Parade Committee of Washington DC announced in January that its 2019 parade would be cancelled, after the shutdown left security costs too high to manage.
And, over on the conference side of the industry, the American Astronomical Society’s annual Meeting saw a number of high-profile scientists grounded – alongside the world’s largest airborne observatory – with neither able to make the trip.
These issues got us thinking – how are government policies affecting festivals and outdoor events in the UK?
We spoke to some industry experts, and heard their thoughts on the key policies and problems they have to contend with on a day to day basis.
The first major issue which has been a concern for festival organisers in the UK is that of artist visas. Last summer, the directors of some of Britain’s biggest festivals signed an open letter to the government, asking for greater transparency in the visa process.
It followed a string of refusals and complications for authors, artists and musicians who had been invited to perform in the UK. Several artists set for WOMAD festival 2018 were unable to make the trip, as were many invited to the 2018 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, was among the major signatories of the letter. He says that, following the publication of the letter, a number of politicians got in touch.
It would be another blow to Britain’s international reputation as a place for cultural exchange if we are no further forward with the visa issue when festival season comes round again.
“David Lammy MP, the de facto Deputy Prime Minister, visited me at the Book Festival for an informal discussion and he promised to look into the matter,” he says. “At the same time, a number of politicians including Deidre Brock MP and Joan McAlpine MSP are calling for urgent discussion and legislation in parliament.”
But progress has been slow to this point, he says. “In January I gave evidence to an All Party Parliamentary Group session in Westminster chaired by Chi Onwura MP. There’s no doubt that the will is there to improve things, but there is no evidence of progress. It was hugely disappointing that the long-awaited Immigration White Paper offered no solutions.
Not all policies are a hindrance, however. Event crewing specialists Gallowglass say that the government’s Construction (Design and Management) regulations have actually benefitted them, providing structure and transparency to clients they work with.
Colin Pickavance, safety advisor, Gallowglass Health and Safety, says: “The CDM Regulations are massively helpful in making key stake holders understand their roles and responsibilities.
“The only snag is that we are still seeing some organisers – designated clients under the CDM Regulations – who aren’t aware of the Regulations’ existence.
“It would appear that they haven’t been fully briefed that the health and safety responsibilities are top-down, and they may not have undertaken the due diligence to ensure that the right people with the necessary competencies have been put in place.
Gallowglass chairman Paul Grecian agrees, and says that Gallowglass is strongly supportive of regulations which call for clearly defined roles and responsibilities. “We welcome any legislation that continues the professionalisation of the industry,” he comments.
At one time, crewing was like the Wild West, with casual labourers brought in and paid cash-in-hand. As a result, standards of safety and efficiency were poor.
“Gallowglass has been appointed principal contractor within the CDM definition on a range of projects. This includes making sure that all of the contractors on the project are trained, competent and, where necessary, qualified.
“Working with our sister company, Gallowglass Health and Safety, we’re given the responsibility of managing and co-ordinating health and safety during the event’s construction phase.”
The company also had to contend with GDPR regulations throughout 2018. Gallowglass head of IT Darren Thorley says: “We engaged a couple of consultants before examining our business processes and launching a series of measures to protect the personal data and comply with the requirement to respond to a data breach within 72 hours.
“We’re routinely asked by clients for information about the individuals who will be working on their sites. Our Gallowglass app provides a means of managing name requests quickly, simply and securely.”
The elephant in the room
And, of course, we can’t talk about government policies without mentioning the ‘B’ word.
Brexit, and the regulatory/economic changes it could bring, is the biggest question mark facing the events industry as a whole, not just festivals. Every company needs to be prepared for it, but nobody is quite agreed on what the best to do that will be.
Nick Barley comments: “People I’ve spoken to regard Britain as a diminished force in the world, and much less interesting to them as a place to visit or do business. It’s hard to say whether this will result in fewer international writers agreeing to attend the Edinburgh International Book Festival in the future.
“What is clear, however, is that a number of our suppliers – such as caterers, security companies and contractors – are beginning to experience difficulty in hiring staff. Several have told us that their Eastern European staff are leaving the country.
“This will result in higher costs and – most likely – we’ll be forced to charge higher ticket prices for events. Sadly, this may reduce our accessibility to audiences on low incomes.”
Paul Grecian is equally cautious about the impact of Brexit. He says: “We’ve already seen a slowdown in the number of Europeans coming to the UK – from Eastern Europe, particularly.
“The UK is less attractive for short term job-seekers. The exchange rate is poor, and we’ve noticed that more young Europeans are staying at home to complete higher education, so when they do come, they are looking for more senior roles.
“Luckily, our workforce comes from all over the world and our European quota is probably not more than 20 per cent, but even so, crewing companies are competing hard for good people. London especially is becoming a lot tougher in an already tough market.”
Finding a balance
It would be overly simplistic to suggest that regulations only serve as a hindrance to creativity, or as a limiter on the ambitions of festival organisers around the UK. As companies like Gallowglass can attest, having regulated standards of practice can be a huge boon for some, offering the structure and guidance needed for creative events to flourish.
But there are still some unresolved key issues surrounding the outdoor events industry which need to be addressed. Having a clear policy on immigration, and managing applications for artist visas in a more transparent way, will be essential as Brexit looms on the horizon in 2019.
If the UK can manage that over the course of the coming year, hopefully we can avoid hitting a roadblock like the one the US government is currently stuck at. The events industry might not have $5bn to throw at our problems until they go away, but with communication and collaboration, we can come out the other side of Brexit stronger than ever.