River Festival u-turn leaves unanswered questions despite Mayor’s promise “I am transparent”

Mayor Tom Wootton
Mayor Tom Wootton. Image: Bedford Borough Council

Councillors from across Bedford Borough say they’re still not sure how, or why, Mayor Tom Wootton (Conservative) made an announcement that he was scaling back the Bedford River Festival without speaking to members of his own party, the wider council, or local people first.

On Friday (18 August), the Bedford Independent broke the news that there were plans to replace the Bedford River Festival with a ‘family festival’.

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

On Sunday morning, however, after almost universal criticism of the plans, Mayor Tom spoke to the Bedford Independent to say he had “listened to feedback” and changed his mind.

Read: Controversial River Festival changes to be scrapped

Since then, local councillors across all parties have sought reassurance that the River Festival will not have drastic changes. They have also asked for clarification as to how the Mayor will now gauge public opinion on how best to evolve the river festival.

He does not appear to have responded to these questions.

Labour MP for Bedford and Kempston, Mohammad Yasin, has written to the mayor asking to meet with him and Councillor Sarah Gallagher, Portfolio Holder for Leisure and Culture.

Mr Yasin says he wants “to seek assurances that any changes to the festival will only follow proper consultation and indeed that future decisions of this significance will not be made in a similar fashion.”

In a statement on his Facebook page, the MP says he is also “keen to better understand what he means by stating that the River Festival is not ‘family focussed’”.

Mr Yasin did receive a response from Mr Wootton, which he has called “disappointing”.

In his response, the mayor says the council is “working hard and preparing for the 2024 event for the enjoyment of all attendees”. However, he does not appear to take up the offer of a meeting or give any commitment that any major changes to the river festival will involve a public consultation.

As opposition to the council, Labour Group Leader cllr Carl Meader (Kempston South) said he is baffled that significant decisions around the river festival were not discussed.

“Like the rest of the Labour Group and other residents of the Borough, the news of the proposed changes to Bedford River Festival came as a complete surprise to me.

“It baffles me why the Mayor and his Conservative Executive members made such a decision with absolutely no discussion or consultation with other councillors.

“If they had been sensible enough to do this it would have quickly been pointed out that to reduce the River Festival to a shadow of its former self and worse still, change the name of it, would be deeply unpopular.

“I fear this bizarre idea shows how out of touch the new cabinet are.

“The Mayor urgently needs to engage with the rest of the Council and local people if his administration are going to deliver what Bedford Borough wants and needs, and not make random decisions with no consultation or explanation.”

Meanwhile, the leader of Bedford Borough Council’s Liberal Democrats, cllr Henry Vann has also criticised the suggestion of changes. When asked for his thoughts, he didn’t hold back in his anger at the lack of discussion about the changes.

“Stopping the popular River Festival was not in the Tory Manifesto,” said cllr Vann. “We are proud to have stood alongside local residents who made their voice heard and were rightly angry that a festival that has been going for 44 years and is loved by local people was to be scrapped on a political whim.

“The Mayor is trusted with the legacy of generations and should think twice before putting Bedford’s well-loved and popular River Festival at risk to make some poorly thought-through announcement.

“It is wrong that he did not seek input from Councillors outside of his own administration beforehand and it seems even more absurd that he’ll take advice from a Conservative wannabe MP, who’s a Councillor from Northampton, but was so out of touch with the people of Bedford Borough that he thought this was a good idea in the first place.”

Mayor’s own councillors not aware

It has also emerged that the mayor’s own ‘backbench’ councillors were unaware of the plans and only found out when they read the Bedford Independent’s report.

Councilor Marc Frost (Conservative, Wixams and Wilstead) commented on our Facebook page that he was unaware of the plans and promised to find out more.

Since the rollback of the proposed changes, cllr Frost has put forward ideas to evolve the river festival that include lowering pitch rates for Bedford Borough businesses, free parking and public transport, and secure cycle parking, but he says the river festival itself should remain a large, bi-annual, event.

Cllr Marc Frost (Conservative, Wixams and Wilstead). Image supplied by Marc Frost
Cllr Marc Frost (Conservative, Wixams and Wilstead). Image supplied by Marc Frost

Cllr Lucy Bywater (Green) who represents Castle Ward, which is where most of the river festival takes place, was also unaware of the plans.

“We had no word at all about any proposed changes to the River Festival until we read your news piece,” said cllr Bywater.

“My first thoughts were why the new emphasis on ‘family’ friendly (when it already evidently is) and when we want everyone to feel genuinely welcome and not feel excluded?

“This recent U-turn shows that the mayor is out of touch with the town, perhaps taking more interest in his support in the villages.

“Of course now he is stating that he’s rowing back on the recent decisions, but we will be keeping a close eye on any developments.

“In any case, major changes to such a popular longstanding event should be after some consultation with local people, community groups and local businesses.

“While improvements to the event can no doubt be made – litter and waste reduction, for example – the stated changes were not at all what I would support.”

  • The Bedford River Festival Main Stage in Russell Park. Image: Pad Presents

After speaking with others at Bedford Borough Council and some of our readers, we put a number of questions to the Mayor. We asked him:

  • Who was aware of the changes when they were announced?
  • With the River Festival being such a significant event in Bedford’s calendar, would it not have been appropriate for a cross-party/full-council discussion first?
  • The mayor has said he is transparent and will listen to Bedfordians, and this is evidenced with the response to feedback about the river festival changes. How will he and the wider executive now be gathering ideas and feedback to evolve the river festival suitably?

He didn’t answer any of those questions, instead, we were sent the following statement.

“I would like to express our thanks to the countless individuals who have contacted me and the Council over the last few days on both sides on suggestions for the 2024 River Festival,” said the mayor.

He continued, “Residents’ passion for the River Festival has been instrumental in my decision for the River Festival to take place in 2024. Bedford Borough Council is working hard and preparing for the 2024 event for the enjoyment of all attendees.”

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