Why cut funding for successful events? #lightsoutni

Writing exclusively for Slugger O’Toole, Culture Night Director Adam Turkington (@AdamTurks) talks about the impact of the NITB funding cuts

Friday afternoon was a bit of a weird one. We were just cracking open a beer with our departing interns and doing that thing where you go ‘God this time two weeks ago Culture Night was just getting started’ and then the phone rang…

By the time I’d hung up everything had changed.

The Tourism Events Fund has over the last four years allowed Culture Night Belfast to become one of the biggest nights in Belfast’s calendar and in 2014 granted us £30K representing one third of our annual budget. Now, two weeks after our most successful event ever, we’ve been told that this fund no longer exists. While it is damaging for all the 65 organisations who have been cut, it is catastrophic for Culture Night as we rely on this budget to manage the huge crowds we have managed to attract over the last few years. We can’t cut programming as we don’t do any, we can’t put up ticket prices as we don’t have any, this budget is the minimum required to run a massive outdoor event on the streets which is open to everyone. In short, we can’t deliver the event safely with a 33% cut.

Some of the 50,000 attendees at this years Culture Night in Belfast.

Some of the 50,000 attendees at this years Culture Night in Belfast. Photo: Brian O’Neill


So here’s some facts about Culture Night Belfast and what we do

  • We received £30K from the NITB Events fund which represents one third of our £90K annual turnover.
  • This investment provides a platform which other business and organisations use. The value of their additional programming is about £500,000
  • We also receive about another £90K of in kind donations from local business.
  • 50, 000 people spent just under £2,000,000 on local business on the night
  • This does not account for the additional spend of the tourists who were in town for the weekend because of Culture Night.
  • Nor does it account for the additional revenue generated after the event as people return to venues and businesses they discovered on the night
  • 82% of our audience say that they attend new venues on Culture Night that they haven’t been at before
  • 54% of our audience say that they are more likely to pay for the events in future as a result of coming to the event.
  • This year of those we surveyed that were attending from outside of Northern Ireland 55% were from outside UK & Ireland
Crowds thronging the Streets of the Cathedral Quarter on Culture Night 2014

Crowds thronging the Streets of the Cathedral Quarter on Culture Night 2014. Photo: Brian O’Neill


Now ask yourself this, ‘How many £30Ks in the DETI budget work that hard and deliver so much?’ If there are any I suspect they are fellow recipients of the NITB Events fund, or at least were. Nobody is saying we should be treated differently. No-one is saying that tourism events funds should be sacred.  But to cut 100% from a fund that delivers so much both economically and socially is plain madness from a Department that should know better.

The macroeconomic argument for events is well understood, they encourage spend in local businesses, increase footfall to key areas and lift the image of a nation.  But they are also vital for our social fabric; they improve our quality of life, connecting us with our city and provide safe shared spaces to build a community.

The one thing that both the political system and wider society can agree on is how events, both nationally and internationally, have lifted the image, mood and economy of this place over the past decade.  To retrench on these events, forcing them to close or barely survive, is not just golden egg economics but also risks setting this place back a decade.

We are quite happy to stand toe to toe with others and demonstrate that we deliver on a business case. But we didn’t get to make this argument the decision was made without consultation or debate. I’d love to have had the chance to make our argument but now we’ve got a mountain to climb to save one of the most important events in Belfast.

  • Dan

    Ask GARC and CARA, as well as the Twaddell group to guarantee that one night next week, that under no circumstance will there will any trouble whatsoever if the PSNI aren’t on stand by…..you can then avail of that £40000 nightly wage bill to put on your culture night.

  • Brian O’Neill

    The argument you are going to hear is that ‘We need to prioritise essential services, how can we fund culture activities when we can’t fix the street lights?’ This is a false argument.

    It is clear from all the research these festivals have a positive contribution to the economy. I come from a business background, if someone says to me for every £1 you spend you will get £5 back in income, this is a no brainer.

    These festivals are extremely important to the tourist and night-time economy of Northern Ireland it is lunacy to be cutting the funding.

    Why don’t the bars and restaurants who benefit pay for the festivals?

    They already do contribute a huge amount to the running costs already. But bars and restaurants pay a massive amount of rates and taxes, they have the right to expect something in return from the Government and Councils.

    The arts are for the middle classes

    The festivals conduct research of participants that clearly show they attract a broad range of people. Even if they do attract a mostly middle class audience this is a good thing. People spending money on hotels, restaurants and bars is exactly what we want. Companies want to set up in places with a vibrant cultural and entertainment life. Professional these days are highly mobile, they want to move to or live in cities that are offer them a good quality of life.

    Arlene Foster on the Nolan show this morning said ‘These are Sinn Fein cuts’. Is she using the arts cuts as a weapon in the fight with Sinn Fein? Are these festivals getting caught up in the crossfire?

    Furthermore it would be extremely interesting to see the running and staffing costings of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Like a lot of things in NI I bet most of the money is eating up administration and bureaucracy. If anyone has any insight on this please do let us know. Funny they will never cut their own costs but instead go for the soft targets.

    Arlene also seems to have no problem finding the money to take her fellow minister to court. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-29493103 Another example of our dysfunctional government that they cannot just talk things through like adults.

  • Brian O’Neill

    I think those policing costs are made-up nonsense. The police have never explained how they come at that figure. BUT I do think it is clear that the cost of policing our divided society plus the negative publicity from our regular orgies of destruction is running into the hundreds of millions. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-24144378

  • Ernekid

    The cutting of the budget for cultural activities and events is a colossal act of stupidity. Events like Culture Night are guaranteed to get tills ringing and boost local businesses. They attract Tourists and they brighten the drudgery of day to day life. I had an excellent evening at Culture night this year and last year. Events like culture night bring people from all walks of life and tradition together in a positive manner. What better way of bringing communities together than the Arts?

  • I pass the Twaddell protest every night on my way home and even though I never see any trouble at it it is very heavily policed when the band/march arrive. But the money wasted on policing it could be put to much better use else were.

  • Brian O’Neill

    Hi John how does it work? Do the band go up to the police lines every night? If yes what time is it? Might pop up one night to do a report on it.

  • Here’s a ‘Devils advocate’ view…..

    You’ve got a great event going. It’s successful, and established. People like it and businesses are supporting it (because it’s good for them). So maybe you should be able to run independently of public subsidy now?

    If the funding were not disappearing entirely, but being diverted to other projects needing that boost that you’ve had, it would be entirely logical. That doesn’t seem to be the case, so the loss to cultural endeavours as a whole is a shame. But your complaint seems specific to your event.

    One of the biggest problems with public funding of [many things] is that it’s so rarely withdrawn and redeployed when the original justification had expired. So it ends up going to established interests and whoever asked first… not the new and fresh ideas that really need it (as you once were).

    Has that time come for your event? I don’t know. It’s moot. I’m offering up the principle as an alternative view. Disregard it as you please.

    Good luck keeping your event strong!

  • Yeah they are there every night, not sure exactly what time the band get there at but the police close the top of twaddell ave from 7.30 – 9. When I say close the road it doesn’t really do it justice, bottom of Twaddell have 1 police jeep closing it but top of road get completely boxed off with at least 10 police jeeps.

  • BarrelOfPorter

    Just from a purely pragmatic point of view, what level of reduction in funding do you feel would be fair?

  • Michael Henry

    The Brit fines are forcing people / groups to be made to suffer-this is nothing compared to The Welfare cuts-but it is still desperate for those that the Brits hurt-

  • Ian James Parsley

    Agreed Brian.

    The issue is that we keep speaking of spending public money on the basis of “need”, but never on the basis of “value”. That £30k is excellent value – indeed it probably saves more than £30k in other areas of benefit.

  • Ian James Parsley

    They’re nothing compared to the *Irish* cuts since 2010.

    So why do you keep going on about the “Brits”?

  • Michael Henry

    Agree with you that Fianna Fáil / Fine Gael and labour were / are crap at government -The Quicker Sinn Fein are the government the better-

    The Brits are snappy with their fines and their new fangled Welfare cuts-even the lib dems are opposed to those cuts going by their party conference speeches today- Sinn Fein lead the way in opposing those cuts-

  • Rapunsell

    Good article – but for me the issue is not the removal of funds for existing events such as Culture Night but the removal of opportunity to seed fund future creative and innovative events. I cant see why the £30k shortfall on Culture Night can’t be made up somehow from the 50,000 people visiting and being very happy to spend money on transport, food and drinks etc. I don’t believe its beyond the arts community to explore alternative /appropriate models to raise that revenue without damaging the ethos of the event. Actions could involve anything from tin rattling to having premium events that are ticketed to subsidise these security/stewarding and other costs and there are probably doubtless a plethora of other ideas. I went to culture night for the first time this year with my family and enjoyed it – great atmosphere on the streets and a brilliant variety of entertainment and arts. I can’t believe for a second that the vibrant voluntary and professional arts community in Belfast haven’t the ingenuity and creativity to cut free of the NITB funding and make it a self sustaining event. Think of the benefits – no more form filling and reports to NITB officials – who probably don’t read them anyway!

  • Is there a published set of accounts to understand how the £90K is spent?

  • Croiteir

    I have no doubt that the people who say that the money spent is returned by the trade the event encourages are truthful. But how do we know? I am sure someone runs a slide rule over it. I would like to know if that money gets back into the public purse. If not then it costs money and we are subsidising Belfast traders. Can anyone point me in the direction of the figures? Or are they just pulled from someones arse?

  • babyface finlayson

    Yes figures would be interesting. The £2,000,000 taken by local businesses seems like a lot to an economic illiterate to me. How would it compare I wonder to an average night? If the difference is more than 30K, then surely businesses might be persuaded to do more.