Community Liaison at Festivals
This blog article was first written for RHEnvironmental’s Licensing Forum. RHEnvironmental are one of the UKs leading bodies for regulatory information, including that around Premises Licenses. I wrote a guest blog for several months in 2013.
This was first published on the forum in April 2013.
The Importance of Community Liaison in a Premises License Application for Music Festivals and Other Outdoor Events
Community Liaison is an area of licensing that is often overlooked by inexperienced applicants but the significance of which can never be underestimated. When one is looking to bring a large outdoor event into a particular area, be that rural or urban, the potentials for disturbance and impact on local residences should not be underestimated. Given this, it is vital that an applicant spend a suitable amount of time in consultation with permanent inhabitants of an area, taking into account their views and, wherever possible, balancing them against their own need to produce a viable, attractive and safe event.
In preparing for a Premises License application for a music festival or similar event, it is of value to see local residents as vital stakeholders in the project, in the same way that the Responsible Authorities, ticket buyers and crew members are held to be so. Though residents often have a limited impact on the result of applications it is important that any potential applicant be willing and ready to change their event management plan to accommodate the more reasonable and addressable areas of resident concern. This should be built into contingency planning.
Often, residents of a community can provide highly valuable local information, sometimes things unknown to an applicant, especially if they’re from outside the area as is often the case with the producers of outdoor events. Finding friends within a community can also be a vital line of information about how other residents are viewing the event as well as providing the opportunity of unofficial spokespersons representing the other side of the coin, should there be a lot of local opposition. Similarly, identifying key members of a community at an early stage is also important, as these should often be approached first.
In my experience, support often comes from those you least expect to find it from. In our most recent license application, we were warned of a gentleman on the access road who would inevitably prove a massive thorn in our side. Yet, upon first meeting, giving him the due respect to hear his concerns and meet him on a level meant that he quickly became one of our surest allies. Appearances – and hearsay – can often be deceiving!
Lets be honest, it is sometimes difficult to take seriously the views of some local residents. Some opinions expressed are deeply uninformed and anybody familiar with licensing multiple music festivals will know that the range of representations against an event emanating from any community will often take a few particular forms. The primary representations revolve around:
Noise Levels: Concerns that the event will cause large-scale disturbance across a wide area by the creation of excessive levels of music-noise. Suspicions that Environmental Health Officers are conspiring with the festival organisers to fix decibel levels at unacceptable heights in order to reduce the population and cause grievous damage to buildings, livestock and people. Unwillingness to believe that noise levels can be controlled or that they will be.
Crime & Disorder: That the event will lead to increased levels of off-site crime, particularly burglary, alcohol- and drug-fuelled violence and – of slightly less magnitude in law but of often deep concern for residents – unauthorised parking. The latter subject includes concerns over shaggy haired travellers, trapped in an anachronistic vortex emanating from Stonehenge 1985, marauding over local fields with their endless wave of carbunculous caravans and mechanically-unsound buses.
Traffic: That the roads will be filled with unskilled – and largely intoxicated – drivers aiming to score points by knocking over local residents, crashing into their vehicles, ignoring road signs and generally lacking in common decency. Concern that other traffic will ignore said road signs also, leading to mass devastation and loss of life.
Alcohol and Drugs: By their nature, festivals are considered to be – as Obi Wan Kenobi once put it – ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’. Here, smiling but conniving bar managers will ply their – likely underage – visitors with dangerous levels of alcohol before pushing them out into the night to face the unending temptations offered by shady drug pushers lying in wait between every marquee. Once drugged, these victims will soon find their way out of the festival, over security fences and through the inevitably inadequate perimeter security arrangements, and into the local community. Here they will seek their pleasure by terrorising the local victuallers establishment, biting victims and attempting to stop cars on local highways by the power of their minds.
Whilst the above descriptions are meant to be taken in good humour, they each hold a nugget of truth as to where concerns can expect to be raised and where an applicant must be ready to show best practice through their event management plan and through their willingness to listen and respond. Its best, when meeting these objections from a local community, to recognise that these will always exist in the face of a new event and are to be treated as genuine feeling. The good news is that licensing committees are generally made up of experienced members of Council who have usually heard it all before and are able to make discerning judgements between representations with value and those without.
My recommendation to any event organiser is to ensure that you have plenty of cards up your sleeve when setting out on your community liaison. Consider the value of a Community Liaison Officer and/or community safety patrol. Offer a resident hotline where they can reach you or a suitable deputy/office through the event. Develop a proper noise management strategy with a qualified acoustics consultant that ideally offers realistic and achievable conditions on music noise levels. Use marshals in the local area to dissuade unauthorised parking as well as raise funds for local voluntary groups. Hold local meetings with residents and the parish/borough/town council – these groups can feel excluded from the official licensing process and you approaching them willingly can only be perceived as a good thing.
During the last consultation period for licensing reform, ‘Rebalancing the Licensing Act’, much was made of the need to give local communities and interested parties more influence over licensing decisions that were likely to affect them. Though little has changed in essence, these areas of consultation mirror the real and perpetuating concerns that a need isn’t being met for those who can be impacted by events such as festivals (and other licensable activities – from clubs to pubs to late night caterers). By taking positive steps towards engaging communities, identifying stakeholders and taking a constructive approach to dealing with emerging issues, event organisers show best practice and ensure that they will be looked upon in a better light when it comes to the Premises License decision.