Police, councils and Notting Hill Carnival organisers were slammed at a packed and passionate meeting at the Tabernacle on 30 October.
A high level of frustration was evident as carnivalists and residents alike tore into an increasingly sheepish-looking panel who had earlier lectured the audience on the 2017 event. It was evident that many in the hall felt that Carnival’s controllers were hopelessly out of touch with the needs of participants and residents.
Sitting on the high table were Commander Dave Musker of the Metropolitan Police, who has been Gold (in overall command) at Notting Hill Carnival for the past three years; Sue Harris, executive director for environment, leisure and residents’ services at the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC); and Richie Gibson of Westminster City Council’s Events Team.
The missing chair
In the chair, looking very isolated, was London Notting Hill Carnival Enterprises Trust (LNHCET) director Lewis Benn, standing in for LNHCET chair Pepe Francis. Strangely, no mention was made of Mr Francis’s absence, but it is widely known that he has been temporarily suspended over allegations of financial impropriety concerning a £20,000 contract with the Nigerian Felabration organisation.
At the ‘Reclaim Our Carnival’ meeting on 25 September it was claimed that £15,000 had been paid for a float that was not provided and £5,000 for a stage at Horniman’s Pleasance on Carnival Monday. However, Nigerian media dismissed the claims, pointing out that Felabration’s truck followed Ebony during the day, with members wearing T-shirts said to have been paid for by Mr Francis. The stage event did not take place because Felabration’s UK-based agent failed to obtain the correct licences in time, the number of people expected to attend would have breached public safety rules, and stalls had been put up without permission. Soca News has been told by a well-placed independent source that no money for that event changed hands.
The same source suggested to Soca News that the suspension was engineered by certain board members attempting an “internal coup” against Mr Francis. This may explain why other board members present at the meeting were in the body of the hall on 30 October rather than on stage with Mr Benn. Their absence was highlighted by campaigner Niles Hailstones, who said: “This board should be on the table. Why aren’t you supporting Lewis?”
Benn started by summarising the 2017 event’s successes and failures and highlighting some of the challenges – particularly money. “We haven’t got the funding streams we should be having, which is having a negative impact on some artistic content. Much is being done out of artists’ own pockets.” That rather undermined LNHCET’s ‘vision’ to “innovatively promote and perpetuate the rich diverse arts of Notting Hill Carnival”, especially as the judging zone received only 40% of the funding needed.
The Greater London Authority provided £350,000 for stewarding and RBKC also supported the basic running of the event. These funds were restricted – ie they could only be used for specific purposes – and were supplemented by an unspecified amount of sponsorship from giffgaff and Red Bull as well as some ‘sponsorship in kind’. An audience member asked: “Why can no one give a definitive answer about how much money comes in and goes out? Why has it never been posted?” Lewis Benn promised figures would be provided “in the next two weeks”.
Sue Harris said that RBKC spent £265,000 on event management (the contract with London Street Events/Street Event Co), £110,000 on toilets and £200,000 on post-event clear-up. She said that some money had been provided to LNHCET for the event’s artistic content. Speaking for Westminster, Gibson asserted: “The figures are quite telling regarding costs of Carnival.”
This provoked an angry response from audience members, who pointed out that the councils’ crude balance sheet took no account of the massive revenue generated each year by Carnival in terms of extra trade for local businesses, incoming tourism, food and drink, accommodation, plus goods and services supplied to Carnival participants etc. Fourteen years ago, the London Development Agency calculated that Notting Hill Carnival generated £93 million for the London and wider UK economies – equivalent to more than £110 million today.
Wilf Walker, NHC Chair in 1981, was outraged by the suggestion that Carnival was simply a cost to the taxpayer. “I reckon about £4-5 billion has come into the area over the 50 years that Carnival has been going,” he said. “The council issues licences for Carnival, such as pub licences – why are you saying there’s no money?” As the basis on which the figures were compiled was exposed as fundamentally flawed and partial, both Harris and Gibson began to look distinctly uncomfortable.
Commander Musker’s belligerent demeanour won him few friends in the hall on 30 October. As the meeting progressed, the gulf that has opened up between the police and the community it purports to serve became all too apparent. “Our tactics won’t change,” he insisted, but as the criticism of the Met’s handling of Carnival grew louder, his demeanour became far more subdued, and at the end of the meeting he hastily turned tail and disappeared.
“Policing Notting Hill Carnival cost £7.8 million – that’s an auditable figure,” Musker claimed. The problem is that no audit on police figures is ever made available for inspection, and the national media simply accept them without question. That sort of smokescreen didn’t work in the Tabernacle, however, and one audience member observed: “Somehow your fee has increased in a time of austerity for an event you use as a training ground. Police earn double time. How do you justify it?” Along with many others, it was a question that was never answered.
Musker claimed that the annual LGBT festival, Pride, is the same size as Notting Hill Carnival and has a fraction of the number of arrests. Arrest numbers can be very misleading, though, and are bound to be far higher when an area is swamped by police officers. Uniquely among the media, Soca News has refused to take the Met’s NHC statistics at face value and has called for proper transparency and accountability. Numbers of arrests are meaningless without knowing how many of those arrested were ever found guilty of a crime and the exact location of that crime. The force has so far refused to accede to Freedom of Information requests to provide this basic information.
When asked why the police habitually feed a crime-driven media narrative of Notting Hill Carnival, Musker threw the ball back into the media’s court, saying, “Every event, such as Pride or the State Opening of Parliament, at end of every day we produce crime figures. For many events, press don’t ask us.” But for Carnival they do, apparently. However, the pre-event police briefings, such the infamous “in the run-up to Notting Hill Carnival” Twitter campaign about unrelated arrests in distant parts of the capital, are not replicated for similar events. The police approach to Notting Hill Carnival is unique, antagonistic and fundamentally unjust, many believe.
Isis summed up a widely shared feeling in the hall: “Carnival shouldn’t be treated as a public order problem. The police treat it as a threat. The narrative needs to change.” Musker was derided for his suggestion that a Nice-style terrorist attack was likely at Carnival. “You generate fear where no fear exists,” one person observed. Others criticised police claims –again, repeated without question in national media that acid was thrown, when it turned out that the liquids were only beer and water.
The Met’s obsession with what called “serious criminality” at Carnival and its willingness to feed the media with a solid diet of negative publicity about the event has made it almost impossible to attract sponsorship. That, in turn, prevents money being spent on initiatives that would improve the management of the route, enhance the artistic content of the bands and counter negative police-driven stories with more balanced material for the media.
Chains of responsibility
LNHCET came in for criticism too, with several people feeling that the information provided was inadequate and provided too late. Slides were rushed through and only one or two points picked out before the next slide was shown. As one audience member said, “There should have been more pre-publicity for this meeting; there wasn’t enough preparation.”
The route was, as ever, a major bugbear. “There were complications such as the late delivery of band passes. Carnival needs to start earlier,” said CAMF chair and LNHCET board member Angela Duncan-Thompson. That was hardly a realistic solution felt one lady, who said, “My band left at 10am but we didn’t get to the judging point till after it had closed.” Debi Gardner criticised the health and safety training of staff hired by outsourced event manager Street Event Co. Responsibility for hiring SEC lay firmly with the multi-agency Operational Planning & Safety Group, Gardner said.
There was disquiet at the lack of ‘fight’ in LNHCET, which many felt was weak in standing up to abuses by the police and misrepresentation by councils and media. Former NHC chair Leslie Palmer protested: “The Carnival has been hijacked by the council and the police. I thought I was going to meet Dave Morgan [former policeman, now director of London Street Events]. I thought black people were going to reclaim our Carnival.” Niles Hailstones put it memorably: “You’ve all jumped on the slave ship; you’ve put your own chains on. It’s obvious who you’re backing. How long is LNHCET going to collude with these people?” Benn seemed hurt by that accusation: “We don’t collude. We work as hard as we can. It is a challenge.”
Long-time carnivalist and educator Celia Burgess-Macey hit out at the unremitting negativity coming from the councils: “Where is your vision for Carnival?” she asked. “Where is your enthusiasm for this fantastic cultural event? Where is the encouragement in the schools?”
The councils will have their chance to answer those questions, and to demonstrate some long-overdue positivity, at the next engagement meeting, which will be held in January. Soca News will keep you informed about that.
In the meantime, we understand the next Reclaim Our Carnival meeting will be held shortly, in mid-November. The main issues emerging from the 30 October meeting are likely to be governance of the Carnival Board; funding (including sponsorship); Carnival’s representations in, and relations with, the media; and the balance of power between carnivalists, police and councils. Anyone interested in attending should also see our report on the 25 September meeting.
Finally, readers who are residents of Westminster should fill in the council’s survey on Notting Hill Carnival, which can be found here westminster.gov.uk/notting-hill-carnival-survey. If you love Carnival, say so!