Should public spaces be used as music venues?

Every summer, Victoria Park welcomes thousands of festivalgoers – but this year Tower Hamlets Council has decided to increase both the size and number of events in the park, and some residents have launched a campaign to stop the park being used in this way

Tame Impala set at All Points East Festival 2022 Pic: @sharonlopez

A rite of passage for British teenagers, tens of thousands of fans flock to summer music festivals each year. No stranger to the loud music, pyrotechnics and dazzling lights involved is East London’s very own Victoria Park, host to both Field Day and All Points East – two of the capital’s biggest festivals.

This summer, the park’s festival capacity is expanding enormously with major events set to entertain 20,000 people (up from 5,000) and medium events holding 5,000 (up from 500). Not only are the events getting bigger, but there are also going to be more of them. The number of days the park can be used for major events will increase from 10 to 12 over the summer. 

This is music to the ears of festivalgoers, who are currently dusting off their bucket hats in anticipation of the summer’s festivities. However, the decision has caused a stir amongst residents. Richard Desmond, Chair of community group Victoria Park Friends, is concerned that, “The Council is prioritising profits over the park and its people.”  

The park has a rich musical history. The first music event held in Victoria Park was a free “Rock Against Racism” concert headlined by The Clash. One of the most defining anti-racism protests of the 20th Century, it took place on April 30, 1978, when a group of 10,000 protestors marched for the seven miles from Trafalgar Square to Victoria Park. The air was filled with energy as The Clash took to the stage in solidarity with the protesters against the rise of the far right National Front.  

Syd Shelton, a photographer and one of the founders of Rock Against Racism, fondly shared his memories with Spitalfields Life: “It was an exciting time, after the death of Altab Ali, the Asian community stood up to be counted and the people of the East End became militant against the National Front.” Ali was a Bangladeshi textile worker who was murdered in a racially motivated stabbing in Whitechapel. This event ignited protests and activism that helped reduce racism against British Asians. 

Since those early days, Victoria Park has been a regular host to All Points East festival since 2018, Love Box festival from 2005 – 2018 and Field Day since 2007. Unlike Rock Against Racism, these are commercial events, with high ticket prices, and they the local authority makes money from them.

IDLES guitarist crowd surfing at All Points East festival 2022 pic: @sharonlopez

Indeed, a profit of £1.58m per annum is expected from the park’s commercial activity. The council say funds raised, “Will allow for a wider range of events to be considered by the council and boost local businesses, while providing a wider range of things for local people to do and enjoy in the park.”

However, the council’s decision to increase the size and number of events held in the park, has led to a backlash: a petition was launched which has so far been signed by 160 residents in protest at the plans.

According to the Petition, the decision is “a terrible idea that would ruin our park, our neighbourhood, and our environment. It would mean more noise, more traffic, more waste, and more pollution … [and] less access and less enjoyment of the park for us, especially for our families and children who need the park during the summer holidays.”

Eliza MaCathy, 50, a Victoria Park resident of 20 years and member of Victoria Park Friends says: “They [the council] don’t give a fuck about the park. They just care about their pockets. I’d like to see some kind of evidence of how it’s being put back into the community.”

Jon Ford King, 43, a painter and decorator and another member of the Friends group, lives two minutes from the park. He says he is not against festivals, but feels strongly that “There’s been no consideration for any residents.” He has four children, who he says are kept awake till late at night, as, “the windows vibrate with the music,” says King.  The morning after, he says he often finds “Nitrous oxide canisters, balloons, human faeces and broken glass” littering his residential street. 

Traffic caused by road closures and people leaving the festival makes getting home from work a struggle, King says. He recalls one instance where he was “Stuck in traffic coming up to one o’clock in the morning.”

Parking is a problem, too: “I’ve seen people that have come to these festivals that have left their car, and it’s been there all weekend – I don’t go out because if I do, I can’t get a parking space,” says King. Free parking on residential streets bordering the park means residents have to battle for parking on their own streets. 

“Having an additional 40,000+ people visiting Victoria Park for 10 days at a time means the grass and wildlife inevitably suffer. Local residents also have to endure noise, traffic, litter, crowds and restricted access to the park during the summer holidays,” says Desmond.

Local protestors are concerned about the damage to the park, too. “I can still see the areas that were used from last year, the park needs time to recover” says MaCathy.

The Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr at All Points East Festival 2023 Pic: @sharonlopez

These concerns are not unique to Victoria Park. Recently, the community group Friends of Clapham Common were victorious in their campaign against Festival Republic being held on the common, seven months after a public inquiry last summer debating public interest in the festival. The group said in a statement, “Events on this scale remove the largest area of open space on the Common in the height of summer, during school holidays and disproportionately affect the 50% of residents who have no direct access to green spaces.

“Local residents have been forced to deal with excessive levels of sound pollution, litter and disruption, which has generated hundreds of complaints and caused distress to those closest to the site.”

Not all residents are unhappy about parks hosting festivals, however. Tony Hart, a resident in the Victoria Park Friends community group, welcomes the event: “It brings diverse culture to our people’s park and a further boost of culture here in the buzzing East End.”

Tower Hamlets Council say they “We remain absolutely committed to working with Victoria Park Friends to continue to minimise any disruption caused by events and help ensure that the People’s Park continues to be managed in a way in which it can be enjoyed by everyone.”

A collaboration between the All Points East organisers, AEG Presents, the council, the local community and local organisations called In The Neighbourhood [In the NHBD], which offers four days of free activities, is one way the council and organisers have shown their commitment. 

Children playing at In The NHBD free event Pic: @sharonlopez

Put on for families and residents , activities on offer include free cinema, live music, theatre and dance performances, street food from local vendors, West Ham FC football sessions, mental health VR experiences and the Eat Club, a charity who teach young people to eat healthily and celebrate the culinary history of Tower Hamlets. The event will run from August 20 to August 23.

Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman say:s “We welcome the return of In the Neighbourhood. Our agreement with AEG, the event organisers, ensures that local residents, businesses and organisations benefit from a programme of free activities.”

“This year’s festival will showcase local talent, support enterprise and provide families with a host of free events during the school summer holidays.”

Jim King, CEO of European Festivals at AEG Presents, says: “We are excited to bring In The Neighbourhood back to All Points East this year.” 

“We have so many fantastic local businesses and vendors joining us in Victoria Park for four days of free activities and entertainment. Whether it’s a dance class, theatre or craft workshop, there really is something for everyone.”

But Eliza’s parting remark captures the views of the unhappy residents: “I want the kids to go and have fun, but I want the kids to be safe. I want all the kids to get home.”  

All Points East Festival will run from August 16 – August 25, 2024

For more information please visit their website

Click here to discover more on The ELL Music Trail

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