Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Oh No Don’t Stop The Carnival 2012

Notting Hill Carnival is the jewel in the UK black community’s cultural crown, representing the history of our early arrival and our sometimes joyous, sometimes tragic settlement into the UK. Carnival remains preeminent as Europe’s most popular multicultural extravaganza.  Since its inception in 1959 carnival has seen many successes and faced many challenges.  However this year, 2012 could be its biggest challenge yet.

In October last year in a dramatic gesture the entire board of London Notting Hill Carnival Ltd resigned citing lack of support from statutory authorities. I checked on the Companies House website and sure enough all the directors are listed as having resigned in October.  This means that the Company and therefore the official license holder and main organizer for Carnival 2102, no longer exists.

The Carnival bands will be preparing for this year and with or without a Board of directors the Carnival will go ahead.

The last board was exhausted with a stream of constant unreasonable demands and cuts to Carnival funding from the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea, (RKBC) Westminster City Council, Metropolitan Police Service and the Mayor Boris Johnson, one unrealistic demand was that this year Carnival starts at 9am and clear up is over by 7pm.

Unless the company has had an AGM (for which I can find no evidence) or the retiring board members signed up new board members before resigning, the London Notting Hill Carnival Board Ltd is no more. This leaves a serious power vacuum at a time when strong clear strategic leadership is required.

An Internet search revealed that the official Carnival
Company web site as listed on the RBKC website no longer exists, their listed phone number is currently unobtainable and all emails remain unanswered.

I decided to check further a field to see if there was any evidence that the event was still on.  The Visit London website states that Carnival dates this year “are to be confirmed” despite the fact that the event traditionally takes place on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Looking at the Mayor’s 2012 online event planning resource, The Culture Diary 2012 there is no mention of Carnival. 

So I then had a look at the Mayors premiere Mayor of London Presents website that lists free events up until September 2012 and here again there is no mention of Carnival. I then diligently searched the Mayors, GLA, RKBC & Westminster and Metropolitan Police web sites to locate any decisions or outlined policies in relation to funding or public safety and I could find none.

Most disturbingly the all important Traffic Management Orders (TMO’s) issued by both Councils that are required to close the roads necessary for Carnival have not been agreed.

I worry that what we are witnessing is a silent conspiracy to let things purposefully drift. In the context of an Olympic year the Police could claim to be stretched to breaking point, the boroughs will cite the disorganized chaos of the Carnivalists leaving things too late and the shortage of cash as reasons why Carnival should skip a year.  

This would be a disaster and I really hope that I am entirely and completely wrong, but in the absence of the legally constituted board and license holder for the Carnival events who else will take statutory responsibility for the licensing and organising of the event itself?

Carnival remains a tremendously important historical and cultural landmark that changed modern Britain irrevocably and for the better.  Carnival is the quintessential response to those who decry multiculturalism reminding them of the multiculturality of this island nation. Carnival fuses and blends, mixes and transforms cultures until they emerge resplendent basking in the warm glow of the totality of human diversity. This is modern 21st century Britain.

What worries me is that I have always been aware of what has been a latent anti Carnival agenda of both Councils in cahoots with the Mayor of London and Metropolitan Police Service.  I strongly suspect, given the absence of any evidence, that the authorities are hoping that no event organiser emerges in time with either the sufficient resources or funding in place, offering them a convenient excuse to point the finger at others. Of course the year on year cuts to funding and the year on year increased demands for improved levels of community safety from the Councils have led to this pretty pass. You can however be sure they will plead their innocence and cite the incompetence of others once it becomes clear this year’s event is not going ahead.

In this, the year of the Olympics and Cultural Olympiad, Carnival should have emerged onto the world stage as a genuine world-class festival in the league of New York Labor Day, Barbados Cropover, Rio or Trinidad Carnivals or the Mardi Gras of New Orleans.  Carnival should have front and centre during both the Olympiad and opening ceremony. As a Mayoral Adviser to Ken Livingstone that was the stated ambition and in austere times such as these, that such latent obvious economic potential (with black youth unemployment sky high as it is), remains largely untapped is a national scandal.

The Notting Hill Carnival is a unique event, but the challenges that it must overcome in order to ensure that it remains a vibrant, enjoyable and most importantly, sustainable event are not new. Carnival is riddled with contradictions and competing perspectives, all of which have, over the years, served to weaken the ability of the grassroots carnival arts movement in London to enjoy the tangible benefits of an event that they are responsible for creating. 

On the one hand, the Notting Hill Carnival commands the status of a ‘World Carnival’ - it is the largest carnival in Europe and second in the world only to the Rio Carnival in Brazil. Yet the infrastructure and resources supporting this significant cultural festival are wholly inconsistent with this ‘World Carnival’ ranking.

An economic impact study, commissioned by the London Development Agency on behalf of the Mayor’s Carnival Review Group published in June 2004 found that in 2002, Carnival generated approximately £93 million and supported the equivalent of 3,000 full-time jobs – clear evidence that what takes place every August Bank Holiday weekend on the streets of Notting Hill is a multi-million pound income generating event.

However, the way in which the Carnival is currently perceived has been shaped more by crime figures than with any acknowledgement of its positive social and economic contribution to London’s economy and cultural dynamism. If properly supported and resourced, the Carnival has the potential to significantly contribute so much more.

The history of the Notting Hill Carnival and the reason for its existence are firmly rooted in the ideals of freedom, unity and community empowerment.  Sadly, much of the language and debate from Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster councils and the Police largely focuses on how the event should be ‘contained’.

If the authorities, through a combination of stealth, political and economic destabilization, forced resignations and using austerity and the Olympics as their pretext are able to effectively close down Carnival, the nation and London will be the poorer for it.

I could be wrong and if so I will be more than happy to be proven to be so. As an ardent lover of Carnival and a Panorama junkie I hope I am, I really do.

Lee Jasper

Harry Belafonte - Don't Stop The Carnival