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Watchdog Thwarted from Deciding Whether £120 Million ‘Festival of Brexit’ Provided Value for Money

The Conservative chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has said questions must be asked as to ‘what the festival was for and whether it was worth it’

An effigy of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson and then Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg in Lewes, East Sussex, in 2019. Photo: PA/Alamy

Watchdog Thwarted from Deciding Whether £120 Million ‘Festival of Brexit’ Provided Value for Money

The Conservative chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has said questions must be asked as to ‘what the festival was for and whether it was worth it’

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The highly controversial £120 million Unboxed Festival – dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’ – has thwarted Parliament’s independent financial watchdog from deciding whether it provided “value for money” until next April.

The National Audit Office was asked by Julian Knight, Conservative chair of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee to investigate after the committee deemed it an “irresponsible use” of public money.

In September, when Knight asked the NAO to intervene, he said that “exorbitant amount of public cash” has been spent on a “so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness” and that this raised “serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery”.

Unboxed consisted of a programme of 10 creative projects and a series of events, activities and installations that took place at locations throughout the UK and digitally between March and November 2022. The festival was announced by then Prime Minister Theresa May and was soon dubbed the ‘Festival of Brexit’. It was officially renamed Festival 22 and then the Unboxed Festival.

To begin with, the festival had a projected target audience of 66 million – equating to every person in the UK – either digitally or visiting the 10 projects spread over 107 sites. The business case which led to the £120 million allocation of funds from the Treasury reduced this to 23.4 million and, since then, various lower figures were said to be the target – including a worse-case scenario of just four million participants.

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The NAO – which has released a report into the project today – was supposed to decide whether it was “value for money”. But the festival’s organisers have now asked management consultants from KPMG to conduct its own independent valuation of the  figures. This means that the NAO will not have the final figures and costs of the project until next March – until which the project is keeping on some staff.

Audience figures for Unboxed are now estimated to be more than 18.1million people – including 2.8 million who visited the installations. But these have been inflated by including the six million weekly figure who watch the BBC Countryfile programme – which devoted a 15-minute segment to it.

The NAO report does release the individual attendance figures for the 10 different   projects.

One of the most expensive, costing £10 million, was the ‘SEE Monster’ – an arts installation using a disused oil rig relocated to Weston-super-Mare beach which attracted 810,000 visitors and is now being demolished. The most popular was an online project called ‘Green Space, Dark Skies’ that attracted more than seven million online visitors.    Two projects – ‘Dream Machine’ and ‘PoliNations’ – failed to attract the number of expected visitors even with a reduced audience target.

The report states that the financial benefit of running the festival was estimated to be £170 million in the form of increased tourism and creating jobs – but estimates for this varied widely from a low figure of £40 million to a high of £493 million.

Festival 22 Ltd, which ran the scheme, has always denied that there was an audience target of 66 million people and has been critical of what it called misleading claims about the festival ever being a creative post-Brexit celebration of Britain.

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“It is frustrating that the NAO seems to have carried out the investigation with one hand tied behind its back,” Conservative MP Julian Knight said. “Although the project has kept within budget, the goal-posts have shifted throughout on audience engagement targets and it is simply not on for organisers to tell a select committee one number only to later claim this was more of a ‘creative device’ to boost interest.

“The big question remains as to whether the £120 million shelled out for the festival represents value for money and, as the NAO says, it is now absolutely vital that the evaluation planned for early next year is as full and transparent as possible.

“The committee will be continuing to look for answers on quite what the festival was for and whether it was worth it, and holding those that made the decisions to account.”

A spokesperson for Unboxed told Byline Times that an attendance of 66m people was never an official target set for the festival, and said that “the audience engagement target agreed by the Government was 9 million (including digital and broadcast engagements), which Unboxed clearly surpassed, engaging with over 18 million.” 

Phil Batty, Executive Director of Unboxed, responded to the report, saying that Unboxed “delivered ten groundbreaking creative projects on time and within the budget allocated by the four governments of the UK” and “responded to a clear brief for a UK-wide festival and presented live events in 107 towns, cities, and villages – many under-served by major cultural investment – and commissioned world-class content for digital and broadcast audiences.”

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