The research seminar for the launch of the Journal of Place Management and Development (JMPD) special issue on Grassroots Festivals and Place Making (Volume 11, Issue 3) was well attended with over 40 academics and practitioners coming along to listen and join the debate.

Editors, Professor Jane Ali-Knight and IPM Fellow Dr Louise Platt kicked off the proceedings by explaining there was initially over 40 submissions to the special issue, demonstrating how popular the subject was. The editors and review process had whittled these down to six articles in the published issue, covering a broad range of topics including; engaging communities, gastronomy, rituals, alternative festivals, mobile festivals, and festival legacy.

Dr Anna de Jong presented her paper “Food tourism & events as tools for social sustainability” which is featured in the special issue. The paper examines the development of a local food festival in a rural coastal community on Scotland’s west coast.

Anna focused her presentation on her main case study festival, “Taste the wild: West Highland food festival” which took place in Mallaig a small village on the west coast of Scotland in 2016. Anna explained the festival was able to take place due to a £6,900 funding pot from Scotland’s 2015/16 Community Food Fund, demonstrating the comparatively small amounts of funding successful events rely upon.

Anna and her colleague Professor Pete Varley, a Fellow of the IPM based at The Western Norway University of Applied Science were able to analyse power relations across the community, as they observed and participated in committee meetings. Anna concluded by saying the event offered the opportunity to bridge relations between tourism and the fishing industry but the bridging was dependant on pre-existing and historical relations between locals. Events can help break down barriers between various stakeholder groups, but not on their own.

Mandy Martinez, director of Barnaby Festival in Macclesfield, discussed her experiences and the challenges of organising a successful festival. Mandy briefly discussed the history of the festival explaining that the festival launched in 2010 as a direct reaction to Macclesfield being named the least cultured place in Britain by the Times newspaper.

Since launching, Barnaby Festival has grown year on year and now attracts 15,000 people from across the North West region and further afield for each edition of the festival, which runs over the course of 10 days biennially.

Mandy discussed the challenges of funding such a large event mentioning there is a small amount of funding available from Cheshire East council and Macclesfield town council but many businesses in the local area were unwilling to contribute despite the impact of the festival. Although Barnaby Festival is a large and successful festival, Mandy feels as though the festival has failed to reinvigorate the town centre of Macclesfield. Mandy discussed the need for further collaboration, funding and an overall cultural strategy, stating, “The festival cannot regenerate the town by itself”.

The final speaker was Lesley Fair, she presented “Is Greater Manchester Eventful?” the findings from her Master’s thesis which explored events and the strategy for events for the Greater Manchester region. Lesley outlined the rich history of events previously held in Manchester including the Commonwealth Games 2002 as well as yearly and biennial events such as Pride and the Manchester International Festival. Lesley argued these large and highly visible events are all focused in Manchester City centre and not in the other 9 towns of Greater Manchester.

As part of her study, Lesley carried out interviews with people from various organisations at a national, regional and local level to get an idea of how Manchester is perceived both internally and externally.

Lesley explained her study showed a lack of strategy around events at a local and regional level, with many Greater Manchester local councils not even having a member of staff focused on events. Lesley also mentioned the need for an events strategy at a national level, as England doesn’t currently have an events strategy, whereas Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have a strategy in place.

Following the end of the presentations, all the speakers were invited to have an open discussion and debate about place-based events and festivals with the audience.

The discussion focused on how to establish an event on minimal funds, with a volunteer workforce. And how (or if) events run with predominately volunteers can be sustainable, with local council budgets being cut to the extent they were. This led to a lively debate about the role of Business Improvement Districts in delivering events. Those that had experience of working with a BID saw a positive contribution to local cultural events – whereas those that had had no direct experience working with BIDs were far more cynical. This is an opportunity, perhaps, for The BID Foundation to explore their members’ policy and track-record in this area and make a commitment to their role in the delivery, promotion and/or support for grass-roots festivals.

The discussion turned to LEPs (Local Economic Partnerships) and whether (or not) they were interested in town centres and events. There was some good practice – but this did not seem to be the norm. The challenge identified by the audience was the lack of evaluation of these smaller scale events – either economic or social and cultural. Without more evaluation, it was difficult to engage LEPs or more regional authorities. Louise ended by thanking everyone for their attendance and referencing the work that she and Dr Steve Millington had done on evaluation – that was freely available on the IPM website.