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Government Accused Of "Squandering" Money On "Catastrophic" Project Dubbed "Festival Of Brexit"

MPs criticise the £120m "Festival Of Brexit" (Illustration by Tracy Worrall)

4 min read

Exclusive: The government has been accused of having “squandered” £120m on an arts project dubbed the “Festival of Brexit” and told to “learn lessons” from the widely criticised venture.

Following an investigation by The House magazine, Unboxed has been described by the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Select Committee as a “catastrophic failure” with “atrocious visitor numbers”.

The Select Committee declared in March that the festival was a “recipe for failure” and a “prime example” of a large-scale project with aims that are “vague and ripe for misinterpretation”.

DCMS Committee chair Julian Knight reacted to The House investigation – revealing the festival has attracted just 238,000 visitors, against the initial "stretch target" of 66 million – by describing Unboxed as looking like “an even more catastrophic failure than even we had thought possible”.

“These atrocious visitor numbers – they are way under the numbers they were promising, which were in the millions,” Knight told PoliticsHome.

“The whole way in which this Unboxed festival has been botched from the start, it looks like the classic, by committee – like the Millenium Dome – type of arrangement, where they think ‘we will build it, they will come’, and actually they’ve built it and no one has come.”

Knight had earlier said Unboxed, the official name of the event initially dubbed “the Festival of Brexit”, sounded like a packaging company.

Martin Green, its chief creative officer, responded: “Unfortunately, it appears the role of select committees is just to bash the department they’re selecting. We said to them, in two weeks, we will gladly take you through every project in detail. And they did not take us up on that offer, which I think shows where their interest actually was.”

Asked about Green’s comments, Knight said: “Martin Green came in front of the select committee, so had perfect opportunity to account for what he was up to. I think he’s getting a bit sensitive because clearly this has been a massive failure.

“I’m really sorry, but the truth hurts. The fact of the matter is this has massively underperformed where he promised the Select Committee it would be. So, don’t shoot the messenger.”

The Conservative MP added: “This could have been a great opportunity to really help out the hospitality sector and areas that have really struggled with the pandemic. It looks to me as if the money may have been squandered.”

Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary, has suggested in response to The House special report that the government department should “learn lessons” from the festival.

She said: “After the chaos and uncertainty of the Covid lockdowns, and hit by rising fuel, food and energy bills, we could have done with an uplifting celebration of our country. Instead, the Tories tried to use a moment of patriotic coming together to score political points, and the British people saw right through them.

“£120m is a huge amount of public funds for a festival that fell flat. DCMS should learn lessons to ensure we don’t have more publicly funded festivals viewed, in some cases, by only 1,000 people.

“Rather than stoking division and trashing our great British institutions, Labour will deal with the cost of living crisis hitting working families.”

It is understood that all MPs on the DCMS Select Committee will be consulted before it is decided whether to ask those responsible for Unboxed to come before MPs again. One member has already expressed interest in scrutinising the Culture Secretary in light of the latest revelations.

Rupa Huq, a Labour member of the DCMS Committee, told PoliticsHome: “The government’s spectacularly botched ‘Festival of Brexit’ has proven itself to be a complete waste of £120m worth of taxpayers’ money in the midst of a cost of living crisis. 

“The DCMS Committee did an investigation into this now proven turkey last year and predicted it would be a failure. These worse-than-expected metrics mean that the Culture Secretary needs to come before the DCMS Committee and explain how spending on this unnoticed festival can possibly be justified as so few people have even heard of the Unboxed festival, let alone attended events.

“At a time when millions of people are facing hardship due to rising costs, including creatives who weren’t supported during the pandemic, and at a time when the creative arts industries are suffering the consequences of people having less disposable income, the government shouldn’t have been going ahead with this self-indulgent pet project.”

Kevin Brennan, another Labour MP on the Committee, told PoliticsHome in a personal capacity: “Brexit has done so much damage to our creative industries that it doesn’t come as a surprise that an initiative which was originally conceived as a celebration of it struggled to find its purpose.

“It’s a shame because there were well-intentioned people involved, but culture needs to be nurtured from the ground up rather than force-fed from the top down.”

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