Finance councillor ducks out of festival debate
Labour councillors were last night accused of “thrashing around trying to blame anyone but themselves” over the huge losses incurred by the Love Luton Festival.
Opposition members took the opportunity to lay into the ruling party when the report on the festival came before full council.
But the executive member in charge of finance – Robin Harris – excused himself from the chamber when the report came up for discussion, leaving council leader Hazel Simmons to field questions.
He declared an interest as chair of Luton Airport’s governing body, LLAL. It was decided earlier in the week that money from the airport should be used to make up for the festival’s losses.
But other councillors who are members of the LLAL board, including Lib Dem group leader David Franks, said they had been advised that they could remain, and only left when the money from the airport was eventually mentioned, returning when the debate moved on.
Councillor Simmons insisted the event had been a success despite losing £394,000, saying: “If you were there you couldn’t say it wasn’t successful.
“You’ve got to remember that when you are talking about the losses; look at it in a balanced way instead of just nit-picking around the edges.”
And she said the council was not trying to blame anyone else for the losses.
“I’ve blamed very clearly the ticket sales being the problem, and extra marketing costs, and Lewis Hamilton coming to the town, which added costs to infrastucture and security.”
But Stopsley Lib Dem Jenny Davies commented that the huge financial toll of the three-day event would only lead to more of the negative media coverage the council had been trying to combat with the event.
And her colleague David Franks said the council had misled people over the true extent of the losses.
“Including £420,000 from the carnival budget as ‘income’ is misleading. A more accurate figure for the losses would be £539,000,” he said.
When questioned, Councillor Simmons said the festival would not be taking place again next year.
“The Olympic torch is not going to come back here and the event was to support the torch.
“We have no plans for any other big, outside events.”
Lib Dem Michael Dolling said that however the council “wrapped it up”, the cash used to cover the deficit was still public money.
“Money you’re attempting to get from the airport is Luton taxpayers’ money. However you wrap it up it’s still taxpayers’ money down the drain - there are still other things that money could have been used for.
Despite not being in the room, Councillor Harris still came in for criticism.
“I was promised twice that Robin Harris was closely monitoring ticket sales,” said Lib Dem Peter Chapman. “At what point did he realise he had a financial disaster on his hands?”
Conservative group leader Michael Garrett demanded to know why ticket sales were so poor.
“It all started to go wrong with the pop concerts. You were determined to have the publicity from two major pop groups coming to Luton.
“I was told by an officer that they were absolutely certain they would sell 20,000 tickets. What went wrong? “Would you not agree there’s a big difference between 20,000 and 5,000?”
Cllr Simmons responded: “Yes I would.”
But Labour councillor Roy Davis accused opposition groups of unfairly trying to make political capital from the debacle.
“From the beginning there has been an attitude towards this event,” he said. “There’s a propensity for members opposite to stick the knife in their town all too often.”
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Weather for Luton
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 15 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North