'Was £350k spent on Luton's Pilot Year for culture bid justified?'

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed what happened behind the scenes during Luton Borough Council’s £350,000 ‘Pilot Year’ for culture last year.

By Stewart Carr
Wednesday, 15th July 2020, 1:10 pm
Updated Wednesday, 15th July 2020, 2:18 pm

‘People, Power, Passion’ was a series of six events held in Luton town centre between June and October 2019 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Peace Day Riots.

The council authorised 'People, Power, Passion' on top of its existing events programme as a test run for a potential UK City of Culture bid for 2025.

Ultimately, the 'People, Power, Passion' events were poorly attended and a decision was taken behind closed doors not to go ahead with a City of Culture bid.

People, Power, Passion

Now, the Luton News has obtained FOI figures behind the six events - as well as a copy of an external consultant’s report commissioned by the council at a cost of £15,000.

The report was prepared by Tom Fleming Creative Consultancy, specialist advisors to local authorities on running arts programmes.

It stated: “People Power Passion was an ambitious programme of unprecedented scale in the town.

“[It] significantly engaged with the diverse communities of Luton ... 59% of the audience were non-white British, 58% of participants were non-white British.

“People from different communities and of different age groups came together around the events and new and lasting friendships have been formed.

“Where People, Power, Passion fared less well in terms of bringing the community together was audience numbers. A conservative estimate was that the six events and 16 shows attracted an audience of 4,000. The main challenge was the weather.”

The report noted positive feedback from audiences and participants, with paid training and 13 short-term jobs. More than 400 local people participated as performers and volunteers, “all with paid expenses”.

But it also found:

> Lack of clarity on roles in the core team.

> Lack of flexibility from the council for quick payments of suppliers and performers.

> Concerns for the wellbeing of children and vulnerable people, which were “raised throughout the consultations”.

> Compressed timeline – the events began just three months after the core team had been assembled, and there was insufficient rehearsal time.

> Low audience numbers, with poor weather at four of the five outdoor events and lack of capacity to “fully resource the communications strategy”.

The report makes no definitive conclusions on ‘People, Power, Passion’, but its summary findings were presented to the council before the UK City of Culture bid was pulled.

Cllr David Franks, leader of the Lib Dems on Luton Borough Council, said: “First, a big thank you to local journalists who have uncovered the fact the Luton Council has thrown away another £15,000 on this outrageous waste of public money.

“It would be interesting to know who decided that wasting £350,000 on events hardly anybody attended was not enough, so they had to dump another £15,000 down the drain paying a consultant to produce a report which tells them nothing they didn’t already know.

“Luton is far from a cultural desert. There’s lots going on in music, art, poetry, amateur dramatics, creative writing and many other creative activities.

“The reason many events are so poorly attended is simply that people who might be interested do not know they are happening.

“If there is a spare pot of cash available to spend on culture in Luton, they could start by advertising on the website all upcoming music, drama and other cultural events encouraging local people to enjoy the cultural offering that is already here.”

FOI figures revealed £106,605 of People, Power, Passion’s budget was spent on 19 artists, with fees ranging from £586 to £20,000, and three dancers reported injuries during the Outdoor Spectacular event, with one pulled muscle and two slips on stage.

Elsewhere, £814 in expenses was claimed by the council’s cultural enabler who directed the event – with over half spent on refreshments.

On this point, a Luton Borough Council spokesman stated: “Much of these expenses were to provide unpaid participants and volunteers with basic lunches and water during rehearsals and performances... People Power Passion was about involving real people in telling real stories about Luton, and this could not have been done if the only people that could participate were those that could afford to be out-of-pocket.

“By providing refreshments and covering travel, we ensured that the 538 participants and volunteers were representative of Luton and from a diverse range of class and cultural backgrounds... For example, the first event, which was about unemployment, featured a cast of people who were currently unemployed, or had previously had experienced of unemployment.

"This made for a much more inclusive project and could not have been achieved without supplying them with refreshments to avoid any cost to participating.”

A Luton Borough Council spokesman said: "The People Power Passion events were a great success. The programme remembered the 100th anniversary of the Peace Riots – a significant moment in the town’s history which it was always important to commemorate. There were over 400 participants, many of whom described their involvement as life changing.

"Through their participation they were able to develop skills and confidence, equipping them to access employment and higher paid work. Feedback from those attending was extremely positive with 93 per cent of the audience finding the events good or very good.

"People Power Passion enabled us to create jobs, opportunities, skills and experience for many individuals and groups in the economically significant entertainment industry which is worth £36m to the local economy. On the back of the council’s investment in 2019 alone, additional resources for Luton from the Arts Council and other grant funding bodies amounted to £3.8m. By investing resources in the series we have been able to lay solid foundations for ever increasing cultural appreciation and participation from among all Luton’s diverse communities.

"We learnt a great deal that will enable us to work with many organisations, individuals and communities throughout the town in order to improve our cultural offering. This will not only have positive economic impacts for Luton but enhance the population’s wellbeing as they increasingly engage with this economically, socially and educationally beneficial sector."