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Saturday, July 2, 2022

Discredited Council strips Notting Hill Carnival leaders of funding


The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) has pulled the plug on London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET), organiser of Europe’s largest annual outdoor festival. Late last year the council revealed that it will not be continuing its funding of LNHCET, and many doubt that the Trust will play any significant role in running Notting Hill Carnival (NHC) this year.

RBKC and other agencies on the Notting Hill Carnival Strategic Partners Group (SPG) have lost patience with LNHCET, which they believe is incapable of running the event safely and efficiently. The council wanted to choose a new group to receive their £100,000 of carnival funding, and in late December issued a call for expressions of interest from organisations to take over as combined event organiser and event manager. Whilst this is controversial, in that RBKC should clearly not be the entity that decides who runs Carnival, it’s understandable that they would desire to give their money to a body in which they, and other, have faith.

Shortly before the 19 January deadline for applications, a well-placed source told Soca News that ‘four or five’ organisations were in the running, but the ‘shoo-in for the job’ was Carnival Village Trust, which runs the Tabernacle arts centre in Powis Square and the Yaa Centre in Chippenham Mews.

Secretive partners
The SPG is made up of RBKC (the lead partner), LNHCET (NHC organiser since 2012), the Greater London Authority (GLA), Westminster City Council, the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS), the London Ambulance Service, the London Fire Brigade, bus and rail operator Transport for London and the government’s culture-funding body Arts Council of England (ACE). The self-appointed group of authority stakeholders meets at GLA’s City Hall headquarters but does not publish minutes of its meetings. Even senior members of the organisations SPG claims to represent have told Soca News that they do not know what is discussed or decided at the meetings.

Last year, local people and the carnival community were infuriated by the way the Strategic Partners Group appointed an event manager for Notting Hill Carnival at very short notice and without any tendering process. The company chosen, London Street Events (LSE), trading as Street Event Co (SEC), had been set up only a few weeks beforehand and had no track record in event management.

To satisfy police security concerns – especially in the wake of recent terrorist incidents in London and elsewhere – plus the council’s desire for a ‘smaller, safer carnival’, more rigorous registration of masquerade bands and other participants was introduced. Bands had to conduct risk assessments, give the police the names and IDs of vehicle drivers, and agree to an event plan, stating which entry point they would use to access the parade route. Entry points were protected by steel barriers and the number was drastically reduced compared with previous years. Bands were warned that the police would carry out random searches of vehicles and driver identities would be rigorously checked.

Distrust and obstruction
The new restrictions generated substantial administration work, so the employment of outside help to manage this was not unreasonable, freeing up LNHCET to concentrate on improving the artistic presentation of Carnival. However, the high-handed way in which RBKC and the MPS introduced these changes infuriated NHC participants, who took out their anger on London Street Events’ staff. LSE’s main role, some felt, was to act as a scapegoat to draw criticism away from the Strategic Partners Group.

Faltering figurehead
RBKC’s decision to end its financial support for LNHCET was hardly a surprise. Almost since it was founded, in June 2012, the organisation has been slated for its lack-lustre leadership, lack of accountability, poor communications both with carnivalists and the media, inability to raise funds, absence from critical meetings and its failure to grasp or respond effectively to serious and genuine concerns about Notting Hill Carnival’s management and future.

If that sounds harsh, consider the facts. LNHCET’s 74-year-old chair, Augustine ‘Pepe’ Francis MBE, is rightly revered for his leadership of Ebony Steel Orchestra, guiding it to unparalleled success over many years. However, he is a clumsy public speaker, as was demonstrated in an infamous ‘car crash’ interview with right-wing talk-show host Nick Ferrari, and he has proved an uninspiring figurehead for Europe’s most popular annual street-based event.

The organisation has done little to help itself. It is styled a ‘trust’ and a ‘charitable company’ yet it is not a registered charity and does not send accounts or an annual report to the Charity Commission as it should under its own articles of association (AoA). Lack of charitable status means it misses out on major funding opportunities and tax efficiencies, and its financial situation is opaque because only the barest summary accounts are available at Companies House (apparently, it has around £50,000 in the bank).

There is no evidence that LNHCET has made much effort to raise money through its own efforts; when pressed, it pleads that potential sponsors are put off by negative media coverage. NHC’s unenviable media profile is an undisputed fact, and largely down to LNHCET’s failure to develop good relationships with journalists. At times, the Trust seems to have gone out of its way to encourage negative press reporting of Carnival; in 2015, it demanded huge sums of money from freelance photographers and journalists for press passes and illegally claimed rights over their work, and in 2017 snubbed major broadcasters who were set to give Carnival its best coverage for years.

Aims and articles
As a charitable company, London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust is governed by several articles of association. Few would disagree that these are reasonable aims, and many of them were mentioned in January’s workshop held by newly formed group ‘Reclaim Our Carnival’. Even fewer believe that the Trust has achieved those objectives – as was made clear to LNHCET director Lewis Benn when he chaired October’s post-Carnival residents’ meeting. In late January, SN was told that Benn had resigned from the LNHCET board. Meanwhile, Trust chair Pepe Francis remained suspended while an allegation of financial impropriety was investigated.

The articles also state that any individual or organisation can apply to be a member of LNHCET, so long as they are approved by the directors. Who knew that? Or that LNHCET is meant to hold an annual general meeting at least every 15 months, keeping minutes of the proceedings, or that one-third of the directors are supposed to resign in rotation at each AGM?

Council of despair
Had the directors followed their own guiding document and shown genuine openness and willingness to engage, it’s possible that LNHCET would have greater credibility with both the Carnival community and the authority stakeholders. As it is, we have to wonder what LNHCET’s main funder, RBKC, has been doing over the past five years to ensure that the Trust, as the recipient of their funding, was run properly. When a participant at an SPG meeting asked about direct arts funding of the Trust, the ACE representative laughed at the naivety of the question – money given to the Trust simply disappeared, it was suggested. The council seems not to have applied proper scrutiny to this pseudo-charity, just as it failed to use good practice in the way it appointed the event manager last year.

However, the council is in no position to lecture others on good management. It remains under a very dark cloud following the deadly fire at Grenfell Tower in June 2017.

The Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s past inaction allowed the manifest failings in London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust to develop and persist. Its decision to cast the Trust adrift was carried out without any attempt to consult the real stakeholders of Carnival – those who create the mas, music and spectacle that draw a million visitors to Notting Hill in August, earning London an estimated £110 million every year.

Representation of the people
It is hard to see that LNHCET has much of a future. It is, though, the only body that – in theory at least – represents all the disciplines (or ‘arenas’) of Notting Hill Carnival, which are mas (through the Carnival Arts Masquerade Foundation, CAMF), steelpan (British Association of Steelbands, BAS), static sound systems (BASS), calypso (Association of Calypsonians UK, formerly ABC) and soca sounds, which is the music for the bands on the route (Caribbean Music Association, CMA). How these organisations will be represented in future – and how they, too, will be encouraged or pushed to become better at what they do – is a big question that needs to be answered very soon.

Under the new contract, RBKC’s chosen event manager/organiser will have to show how it will appoint or arrange elections of board members, arena leads, directors and advisers. It must demonstrate financial transparency by filing full (not summary) accounts and have robust lines of communication. The new group will also have to engage with the local community far more effectively.

A major element missing from RBKC’s requirements is any reference to a strategy for dealing with the media. Without this, Carnival will continue to be at the mercy of the Met press office’s negative propaganda machine.

Community credibility
On 26 February, Carnival Village Trust was awarded RBKC’s carnival funding. As CVT was set up to upgrade and run both the Tabernacle and the Yaa Centre, they’ll presumably now need to revise their own articles of association. CVT has had its own financial and organisational challenges as well, so we can only hope for the best in their new direction.

We understand that there are running costs for Carnival of around £650,000 in total (including stewarding, infrastructure etc). That figure, coincidentally, is equivalent to Evening Standard editor George Osborne’s remuneration for working one day a week for a financial institution!

Clarity in conclusion
Clearly, appointing an untried event manager in such a hasty and inappropriate way was going to cause problems. Clearly, the police took risk-aversion to absurd lengths in 2017, and were overly prescriptive. Clearly, the distress caused to the local community by the fire at Grenfell Tower, close to the route, added another layer of complication to Carnival 2017. Clearly, the behaviour of some participants and groups was obstructive and self-defeating. And clearly, Notting Hill Carnival would have run far more smoothly, with fewer delays and less inconvenience, had there been a more collaborative, open and trusting spirit on all sides.

Regrettably, there is no sign at all that the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the Metropolitan Police Service have learned that lesson.

Over to you
This article only scratches the surface of a complex and fast-changing situation and is based on incomplete, sometimes conflicting, information. It does not claim to provide anything like the whole picture, and readers are encouraged to do their own research. Let Soca News know if you can add more details or correct any inadvertent errors.

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Additional updates to this article by Katie Segal