DSD withdraw funding for Laganside Events

laganside boundarySince the closure of the Laganside Corporation on 31 March 2007, the Department for Social Development has given out grants for events and community activities in the Laganside area of Belfast. The area includes the Cathedral Quarter as well as stretching our towards York Street, Corporation Street, the Sydenham bypass (but not including Titanic Quarter), Sirocco, Lanyon Place, St George’s Market, the Markets, the Gasworks and the banks of the Lagan.

Back in 2007, the then minister Margaret Ritchie pointed to the Laganside Events Grant Scheme making “an important contribution in terms of encouraging the arts, cultural and community based events in the Laganside area” and said that “these events play a key role in sustaining life and vitality within this area and indeed Belfast City Centre”.

Last week, DSD informed organisations that normally apply for and benefit from the Laganside Events Grant that it would not be reopened for 2012/13, giving them just a few month’s notice to seek alternative funding sources for events being planned for the spring and summer. The smaller Laganside Community Activity Grant will continue.

Letter from DSD to organisations cancelling Laganside Events Grant

In the letter, the department explains that “the decision to withdraw the scheme is due to pressures on the Department’s budget within the current difficulty funding climate for public expenditure”.

In the last week, DSD has issued a large number of press releases and announcements about other funding streams and development, but until now, there has until now been no public comment about the Laganside Events grant.

Asked for a statement, a DSD spokesperson said:

Due to funding pressures within the Department’s budget we have had to close the Laganside Events Grant from 31 March 2012. We have notified those organisations which usually apply for this grant in order to provide time for them to identify other potential funders for events planned for later this year.

The Department remains committed to promoting the Laganside area and has earmarked £530,000 to support the initial operations of the new MAC when it opens in April 2012. We also have a funding commitment of £100,000 to support the work of the Cathedral Quarter Steering Group.

The Department will also continue to accept applications for the Laganside Community Activity Grant during the 2012/13 financial year. This grant enables local communities to use the amenities in the area.

Over the weekend, I asked the DSD Press Office for a list of organisations that benefited from the Laganside funds along with the value of the grants awarded, as well as the total value of the Laganside grants over the last years.

This information was not made available and is being treated as an FOI!

The clunky Government Funding Database only seems to hold details of a single grant for the 2011/12 Laganside Events: the 13th Open House Festival received £9,000. But there must be more.

Many organisations – including Ethnic minority festivals, CAQF, Festival of Fools, Culture Night and Belfast Pride – have benefited over the years from funding to help organise well-attended events in this often-overlooked area of Belfast which includes public spaces in Custom House Square, Writers Square, Cotton Court Piazza and Lagan Weir.

Has the larger bricks and concrete MAC – which announced its opening programme last week – eaten up the funding that DSD would otherwise have made available to smaller, more organic groups that deliver low-cost, family friendly events to brighten up the city and encourage public participation and cultural awareness?

The relatively small DSD grants helped organisations leverage other funding and sponsorship, creating visitor spend in the Laganside area as well as across the wider city.

While every scheme has a season and public funding of events in specific communities cannot necessarily continue for ever, eliminating the Laganside Events grant in a single year – rather than winding down its level of funding over a couple of years – is a blunt measure.

Within the arts sector, the removal of the Laganside Events Grant has been described as “devastating news” and is being seen as a ministerial decision by Nelson McCausland, rather than one coming out of existing department strategy.

In the year that Belfast ‘bigs it up’ for the Titanic, the overspill area right next to Titanic Quarter will be culturally poorer with the elimination of around £250,000 of events funding.

Map taken from DSDNI funding documentation.

Update – The Cathedral Quarter Steering Group released a statement this afternoon calling the cutting of the fund a “serious blow to Cathedral Quarter” with “serious implications for the continued viability of these highly popular events in Cathedral Quarter”.

The Steering Group has representation from local businesses, venues, arts groups, the university and St Anne’s Cathedral. The group’s chair, Paul Mc Erlean said:

I’ve been in touch with a number of arts groups who have received letters without any prior consultation or indication that the funding would go. This cut will seriously undermine many of the great events that have given Cathedral Quarter and Belfast such an improved image and helped to make the Quarter a shared space in the city centre for the people of Belfast and its visitors. We call on the Minister, Nelson McCausland to reinstate the Fund as soon as possible.

Events and festivals are important for tourism as well as providing jobs in the hospitality sector, with thousands of extra people in the area making use of cafes and pubs. With cheap drinks promotions over the Odyssey still in the news, Bill Wolsey from the Merchant Hotel added:

… unlike other popular night spots in Belfast, the Cathedral Quarter, at least in part because of the diversity of the people that these very popular events attract, is also a very safe and welcoming place to socialise.

Black Box Belfast’s venue manager Neil Jacques said

The lateness of this decision has compounded its impact, with arts organisations being left little or no time to seek alternative avenues of funding.

This year’s Out to Lunch Festival finished a fortnight ago. It’s director Sean Kelly – also responsible for the larger Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival in a few month’s time – said that the Laganside Events funding helped “ensure both festivals could be accessible and affordable to all the people of the city and beyond”.

There’s an argument that the success of The MAC (which opens shortly) will depend on continuing to develop a cultural ecosystem in the Cathedral Quarter. Many of the free festivals have been strategically working close to the MAC building site in preparation for the time when they can also use it’s spaces. And to carve out a place on the map as a cultural centre, Cathedral Quarter needs a range of events, and a range of prices, to develop a broad spectrum of appeal.

The Steering Group suggest that the following events are threatened by the cutting of the DSD fund: Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Festival of Fools, Black Box Events, Open House Festival, Belfast Children’s Festival, Out to Lunch Festival, Summer Sundays and Culture Night.

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