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Waltham Forest has backtracked on an offer of £35k funding for a festival whose legacy formed part of the evidence used to support the council’s winning bid.

Photo of Waltham Forest District
Waltham Forest Council backed out of an apparent promise to fund a festival's contribution to the London Borough of Culture, leaving the charity out of pocket

Bill Boaden

A festival is facing an unplanned £30,000 deficit after Waltham Forest Council backtracked on an apparent commitment to help fund its London Borough of Culture activities.

HighTide Festival is considering legal action to recoup nearly £17,000 it had already spent on marketing, actors, stage managers and other staff when the local authority told them it would not financially support its 2019 programme: “The Council was fully aware that we were incurring these costs and would incur these losses,” a recent letter says.

A statement from Waltham Forest Council sent to parties inquiring about the decision, including ArtsProfessional, says that “no formal contract was signed” for the commission.

“When we confirmed we would be unable to be one of the funders of this year’s festival we offered free communication and marketing support. This was not taken up by HighTide Festival, who subsequently cancelled the festival.”


HighTide’s Chief Executive, Steven Atkinson, said the offer was not only inadequate to meet its costs, but “incredibly disappointing” given they had successfully partnered with the council on festivals in 2017 and 2018. Those programmes were later put forward by the council as evidence to support its London Borough of Culture bid, he said.

Atkinson expressed frustration that Waltham Forest Council had not responded to his repeated requests for reimbursement over the past three months. He finally received an acknowledgement of his correspondence on July 23 after penning a final warning. “Please do not doubt our resolve to take whatever steps we consider appropriate to recover our losses and damages,” he wrote.

He told ArtsProfessional that the festival has not taken this approach lightly: “I wouldn’t be doing it unless this was completely unjust and had put us in such a precarious position.

“There are different channels that are asking the council to be accountable on this and they are answering with the party line.”

£35,000 committed

Emails between HighTide staff and Waltham Forest Council appear to show the council backpedalling on a £35,000 funding commitment. 

A 31 January message to HighTide’s Executive Producer, Francesca Clark, said the London Borough of Waltham Forest (LBWF) was “keen to continue and develop the relationship with HighTide”, which Atkinson says had involved months of conversations about running a third festival as part of the London Borough of Culture.

“I can confirm that LBWF can commit £35,000 towards the HighTide Walthamstow Festival 2019,” the email from Ana Gillespie, Executive Producer for London Borough of Culture says.

Atkinson said his staff spoke with Waltham Forest Council’s culture department regularly after that to discuss details of the festival, including location and budget issues – but that the offer of £35,000 was never called into question over this time. He was resolute that HighTide was meeting the conditions the funding was offered on – alignment with the Borough of Culture’s principles of co-creation practice and deeper engagement with local youth and theatre makers.

On April 30, London Borough of Culture Executive Director Lorna Lee emailed Atkinson to say the council would not fund HighTide’s 2019 festival.

“I have been reviewing all remaining elements of the programme and available resources against our commitment to engage with 85% of our residents across the borough,” she wrote.

“I have come to the conclusion that, in light of the dense programme already being developed for Walthamstow, we need to focus our funding into projects for residents in other areas. I am sorry to inform you that the difficult decision has been taken that we will not be able to fund Hightide in 2019.

“Given our relationship over the past two years this decision has not be taken lightly, but the recent departure of one of our producers has also added to the pressure on resources. I realise that tickets are due to go on sale at the end of May and that you are starting to develop plans locally and was therefore keen to let you know now.”

‘Continual development’

A spokesperson for Waltham Forest Council described the apparent funding commitment made in January as “an indicative conversation about wanting to fund a programme of work”, which was later reviewed.

“It’s not about a reduction in resources or that we have cut funding in any way. It’s just that the resources available have been used in a different way,” the spokesperson told ArtsProfessional.

“We haven’t agreed to fund anything and cut it once a contract has been [signed].”

An emailed statement from Waltham Forest Council added that the “ambition to reach 85% of residents as part of the Mayor’s first ever London Borough of Culture meant the programme had to be balanced across all parts of the borough” and target a wide audience.

HighTide Festival Walthamstow planned to reach about 10,000 people, through six separate events in different locations across the borough.

The council’s statement continues: “The cultural programme has been in continual development and evaluation since the start of the year. This has enabled us to respond to the feedback of audiences, creative partners and the community to shape the programme accordingly.”

It adds that the council has been able to deliver “a far greater number of projects and cultural activities than were originally set out in our London Borough of Culture bid”.

Moral obligation?

Waltham Forest Council did not answer questions about whether funding for other London Borough of Culture commissions has been affected by its continual development approach.

Updates on the project given to its Cabinet make no note of changes in funding allocations for the London Borough of Culture programme. They do, however, show that the scheme has raised about £110,000 more than it expected through fundraising.

“We have exceeded our £950,000 fundraising target through sponsorship, external funding and in-kind support having secured £1,060,000 to date,” a May report to Cabinet says.

Letters from Atkinson to Lee, the programme’s Executive Director, say the decision to withdraw its promise to fund HighTide’s commission has affected the organisation’s bottom line and audience targets agreed with Arts Council England.

“The timing of your decision to cancel the agreed commission was critical. One month out from going on sale, and four and a half months out from opening, is too late in our planning to avoid costs, to find an alternative that could have seen HighTide Festival Walthamstow 2019 reconceived or delivered elsewhere, and to revise the fundraising strategy for the year to avoid a deficit,” he wrote in June.

Another letter in July says: “We are dismayed that neither the letter nor the email have been acknowledged or responded to over a month later … we have considered again the legal issues involved in this matter and remain of the opinion that HighTide has a clear right to recover from the Council all of the losses and damages which resulted from your actions.”

But a lawyer who works in the arts told ArtsProfessional that HighTide could face an uphill battle trying to prove it had, in effect, a contract with the council.

“Quite often arts organisations work in quite a fluid way and there’s an awful lot of working on a contingent basis. The risk for both parties in that sort of situation is that, at some point, there may be insufficient clarity about what’s being offered.”

However, he said there is an inherent power imbalance in these arrangements: “There is an argument that local authorities have a moral obligation if not a legal obligation to support a small organisation”.

LBWF did not give a response to the lawyer's comments.