Claims Bedford Mayor’s “heart isn’t in” River Festival after failing to attend scrutiny meeting

Mayor Tom Wootton standing along Bedford's River Great Ouse with the town bridge in the background.
Mayor Tom Wootton

The Bedford mayor’s failure to attend a committee meeting shows his “heart isn’t in” the River Festival, a senior Lib Dem councillor has claimed.

The Environment and Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Committee had asked the Conservative mayor, Tom Wootton, to attend last night’s meeting (28 September).

This follows the backlash in August after the Bedford Independent revealed his plans to replace the biennial River Festival with an annual event were announced.

Read: Exclusive: Bedford River Festival to be replaced with annual family festival

This led to a u-turn just 48 hours later with the changes scrapped and next year’s festival going ahead as planned.

Read: Breaking news: Controversial River Festival changes to be scrapped

Committee chair, councillor Colleen Atkins (Labour, Harpur) said the mayor had been given six week’s notice to attend the meeting. “[That] was followed up two days ago and we’re told that the mayor isn’t available to attend,” she said.

“It will be interesting to know whether it is a council function or whether there is some other reason why he couldn’t attend,” she said.

Councillor Charles Royden (Lib Dem, Brickhill) said: “I’m sorry that the mayor couldn’t be here because it seems as if his heart isn’t in this project.”

The portfolio holder for environment, highways & transport, councillor James Weir (Conservative, Great Denham) did attend the committee.

Councillor Royden asked him: “I’m just wondering when [the mayor] cancelled it, did he ask you for your views on whether you thought as portfolio holder it was a good idea to cancel it, and what was your response to him?”

Image: Bedford Borough Council

Councillor Weir replied: “Yes we discussed it as an Executive in great length and we also did some of our own research with families.

“And we brought back views that said that there were some concerns about the River Festival and the way towards the end of the day things got a little bit rough and out of hand which was discouraging families.

“In our manifesto, we said we wanted to try and be more family-friendly so we said ‘Well, why don’t we, instead of the River Festival, why don’t we have an annual festival, make it smaller and make it more fun family-friendly?

“I do agree that we should have consulted more widely, we should have shared amongst members our thoughts on what we were going to do.

“As you know we got a lot of feedback and we took that on board, the mayor listened and after consultation with a lot of the executive and councillors, he changed his mind.

“We said that we would put it on but we want to introduce some safer aspects to it where families could feel less threatened and didn’t need to disappear early in the day,” he said.

Councillor Royden said: “Thank you for helping us to understand. I’m sorry you’ve had to do that and I think it should have been the mayor who should have come along because I think it’s not taking this overview and scrutiny committee seriously.

“I don’t remember [the River Festival] being in any way anti-family. But fair enough, if it’s going to be directed specifically towards that category then that’s interesting,” he said.

The Bedford River Festival has been an important part of the fabric of Bedford for 45 years.

Founded in 1978, to celebrate the completion of a navigable route by water, between Bedford and The Wash, it was originally an annual event held on the late May bank holiday before becoming a biennial festival in July.

It’s said to have been the second largest free outdoor event in the United Kingdom, after the Notting Hill Carnival, attracting up to 300,000 people over the weekend.

by John Guinn
Local Democracy Reporter

additional reporting by
Paul Hutchinson for the Bedford Independent