Festival set to go ahead after organisers, council and locals do battle

A fraught process of relocation to south London's Brockwell Park has laid bare the troubles faced by big festivals in the capital

The London music festival Field Day looks likely to be finally granted a licence by Lambeth council for its 2018 edition, following a long dispute between local councillors, festival promoters and local residents that has mirrored London's wider struggles over public space and private profit.

Headlined by Erykah Badu, Four Tet and Fever Ray, Field Day is scheduled to take place for the first time in Brockwell Park, after 11 years in east London's Victoria Park. But with accusations of council mismanagement, warnings of ecological damage and impending legal action, Field Day’s long-term prospects remain under threat – as do those of the capital’s wider festival scene.

Founded in 2007, Field Day has built up a loyal audience drawn in by high-profile indie acts, underground DJs and international musicians from Syria to Sudan. It is seen as a testing ground for breakthrough artists on their way to mainstream success, a vital function in an age when music sales and bricks-and-mortar venues are in twin decline.

Its growth has been matched by that of Lovebox festival, with whom it has shared Victoria Park for the past decade. Both festivals have attracted increasing corporate interest: Field Day was bought out by the UK conglomerate Global in 2016, Lovebox a year earlier by Live Nation, the world’s biggest concert promoter.

Brockwell park; Lovebox new intended festival site, which is much smaller than Victoria Park

An aerial view of Brockwell Park. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

But in a sign of the growing commercial pressures within London's festival scene, both were forced out of Victoria Park when the US-based events behemoth AEG, owner of California’s Coachella festival, won an open tender with Tower Hamletsborough for the site last autumn. AEG’s new event All Points East will debut there in May.

Field Day and Lovebox announced Brockwell Park as their intended new home, but it has meant squeezing into a site roughly half the size of Victoria Park and facing much stiffer local opposition. In February, Lambeth made a partial concession to residents’ concerns, accepting Field Day’s initial proposal while rejecting Lovebox, which has since relocated to Ealing’s Gunnersbury Park.

This compromise has done little to quell dissent. "The scale of what’s proposed is just far too much for the community to bear," says Alice Salisbury, who founded the campaign group Brockwell Streets.

For Susy Hogarth, chair of the volunteer group Brockwell Park Community Partners, the risk to the park's fragile ecosystem is stark. "There will be hundreds of thousands of people coming to these festivals," she says. “If that goes wrong, it goes incredibly wrong. The paths get destroyed, the trees die from lorries driving over their roots, the park’s biodiversity suffers. It could end up as just another patch of ground.”

Much of the scepticism can be traced to Lambeth's decision in 2015 to dramatically increase the number and size of profit-making events in the borough’s green spaces, following crippling budget cuts inflicted by central government. The councillor who oversaw that change in policy, Jack Hopkins, briefly juggled those public responsibilities with his current role as CEO of the Night Time Industries Association, a lobbying group for clubs, venues and festivals whose members include Lovebox, its parent company Mama, and a number of events and venues linked to Field Day’s owners.

Yet Lambeth's delivery of ticketed events has been poor, culminating last summer with the catastrophic dance music festival Sunfall. Following serious problems with entry checks, thousands of ticket holders were forced to queue for over four hours, with reports of fights, panic attacks and vandalism among the crowds spilling across the park, before the police were called in.

Contractors then ripped out a bench placed in memory of local residents, while the park’s miniature railway was put out of action for several weeks after gravel from under its tracks mysteriously disappeared. Sunfall has since folded after Lambeth said it would not be allowed back.

Field Day and Lovebox are each twice the size and three times the length of Sunfall. By January, hundreds of outraged residents were cramming into a church hall in nearby Herne Hill for an ill-tempered and occasionally abrasive meeting with council and festival representatives.

The only people at the meeting to speak in favour of the festivals were a group of local teenagers. As they explained how Field Day was the best day of their lives, or that access to live music was essential for their mental health, they were heckled and booed by the predominantly middle-aged crowd.

Those on the panel seemed to be caught flat-footed by the strength of the post-Sunfall opposition to festivals, with Lambeth seeming particularly ill-prepared for scrutiny. "Appropriate mitigations have been made," a council spokesperson tells me, “which will balance the impact on the park and local residents with the right of people to enjoy a world renowned music event.”

Field Day has also made tentative efforts to engage, as founder Marcus Weedon outlines. “We’re committed to supporting the future of Brockwell Park and investing in initiatives for residents via our Field Day Community Fund,” he says. “We’re working in partnership with arts charity 198, facilitating and recruiting work placements for the festival, and we’re giving local musicians the opportunity to perform.”

Yet residents continue to argue that they’re being fobbed off – that crucial information about Field Day’s impact either hasn’t been made public, preventing informed decision-making, or doesn’t exist.

In response to campaigners' legal threats, Lambeth conceded this week that Field Day’s initial approval was granted unlawfully after the councillor responsible failed to publish their reasoning. A new decision has now to be made. It’s unlikely the festival will be prevented from going ahead, but the move reinforces the sense that Lambeth’s management of the process has been flawed.

Meanwhile in north London, a legal challenge by residents of Finsbury Park against Wireless festival is making its way to the UK supreme court, based on an obscure law from 1890 that says the park can be closed for no more than 12 days a year. And groups around Gunnersbury Park have already expressed outrage at the sudden arrival of Lovebox.

Back in Brixton, pressure group Brockwell Streets is launching a judicial review of Field Day’s approval, having hit its crowdfunding target within a matter of hours.

The situation remains delicately poised. While Field Day looks set to go ahead this year, Lambeth’s handling of the process and the bilious nature of the debate has set a worrying precedent. Arguments over the use of public space, local government accountability and Londoners’ access to live music could be repeated year after year across the capital. Well-loved local amenities could be at risk by these events on, but public funds and access to cutting-edge culture could be threatened if they’re prevented.

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original article by the Guardian.