Controversy has erupted again on Clapham Common, with a protest this morning at the ‘events service entrance’ – prompted by the prospect of major events starting up on the recently repaired eastern section. The Common has recently emerged from nearly a year of major grass repair work, following events that wrecked the grass surface; whose timing proved especially unfortunate given it took a large segment of the Common out of use at precisely the time when we were all encouraged to mix outdoors and gyms were closed. The theory is that the new grass has a better base and is more hard wearing than what it replaced, and there was indeed a fair bit of earth moving early on to so this ‘once in a generation upgrade’ – but it’s fair to say it was also an unavoidable response after some particularly long events at the site which had left the Common in a muddy mess.
The particular issue today is that Lambeth (who control leasing, management and licensing of the whole of the Common, including the bit that’s in Wandsworth) have signed a five year deal with Festival Republic to host events on the Common – but they haven’t managed to get the Secretary of State’s permission that is needed to run these events. Festival Republic used to be known as Mean Fiddler group, and they run some major events including Reading & Leeds festivals – the Clapham event would run for just under a month. Unfortunately for Lambeth it looks as though they need that permission to satisfy the terms of the contract they’ve signed with Festival Republic, and that they plan to proceed anyway ‘at risk’ and run events from today onwards.
The friends of Clapham Common who were protesting this morning are not at all impressed with such a Cavalier attitude, and are therefore fundraising to mount a challenge to stop events going ahead without proper permission. Their website is here with the details of what’s going on and how to help; they’re seeking donations to raise funds to support a legal challenge.
A key concern of the friends of the Common isn’t so much about the festivals themselves – but that the new grass is still fragile, and that 40,000 festival visitors a day over the August Bank Holiday weekend, plus all the paraphernalia of a big festival lasting almost a month, risks starting the whole cycle again and locking the Common down again until the grass can recover next spring.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with events on the Common – they’re very popular and many have missed them amid the lockdowns. But the way these have run recently has not been a success, with ever longer recovery times and the Common being left in anunacceptably poor state afterwards.
Some events never cause problems. For example Luna Cinema, the first event on the new grass which ran for a few days at the end of July, is a good example pretty harmless and a low-intensity use of the Common: it ran for a few days and was carefully laid out so that once it was finished, the common came back in to use straight away. Similarly Irvin Leisure have run funfairs on the gravel section of the Common for about as long as anyone can remember (including a brave appearance in November last year, in the midst of lockdown chaos, which almost certainly made a loss) – the site is pretty much purpose built for fairs; and Irvin are a well organised and professional firm, they’ve always been good neighbours, leaving the site as they found it. The Friends Fest also successfully used that site & the adjacent gravel pitches without seemingly causing anyone any particular problems.
There probably is a workable middle ground here for the larger events like Winterville & the summer festivals – but it’s likely to need a more engaged approach on the part of Lambeth, and for some proper thought on how events can be managed in a way that doesn’t end up closing vast areas of the Common for weeks and months. It’s a question of how long it is used for, how long the grass is under stress. The risk at the moment is that near term commercial pressures may push Lambeth in to doing things which cause a good deal of damage to the Common (again) – and take it out of use again.