Revealed: Council lost thousands on Hazy Days... but refuses to answer questions

PUBLISHED: 07:00 28 August 2018 | UPDATED: 13:36 28 August 2018

Hazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark Atherton

Hazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark Atherton

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Financial management failings saw North Somerset Council ‘lose thousands of pounds’ on the Hazy Days music festival, and the authority has since blocked the publication of information due to feared damage to its reputation. Concerns over North Somerset Council’s running of the Tropicana have been raised over the years, but have intensified in the past 12 months amid talk of ‘financial irregularities’. Reporters Sam Frost and Sarah Robinson investigated.

Hazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark AthertonHazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark Atherton

The event was held at Weston-super-Mare’s Tropicana in 2016 and 2017, but officers’ paperwork bungles last year saw the council ‘lose around £16,000’, the Mercury understands.

Both the Mercury and members of the public have asked the council in freedom of information (FOI) requests to come clean, but the full tale of blunders remains under wraps due to fears of ‘negative publicity’.

The Hazy Days case exposes questions about the council’s transparency over the Tropicana, while the lack of a business plan or ‘coherent strategy’ have also come under scrutiny, with losses of almost £300,000 since 2015 claimed.

The council has now refused to meet with the Mercury to answer questions about the Tropicana.

Clockwise from top left: Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Reef, Newton Faulkner.Clockwise from top left: Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Reef, Newton Faulkner.

Botched deal cost council thousands

The Hazy Days festival – coined as ‘Glastonbury at the seaside’ by Cllr John Crockford-Hawley – proved a popular addition to the town’s summer schedule in 2016, and organisers were keen to take it to new heights in its second year.

North Somerset agreed to fork out tens of thousands in public cash to pay for household names to top the bill, and invoices seen by the Mercury show Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Reef and Newton Faulkner received £12,000 each for their hour-long stints on stage.

The council first said it paid £56,000 for headline acts, and stated it recouped that outlay from ticket sales and bar takings. But it later revised this figure to £32,000 and admitted it allowed the festival to keep ticket cash.

Council staff agreed to pay the upfront costs of booking Hazy Days’ acts and, the Mercury understands, festival organisers were told they could keep money from ticket sales, on the proviso North Somerset could use the cash to recover any losses if necessary.

But a source has told the Mercury this contra deal was never ratified, meaning Hazy Days Ltd, as per its right, kept ticket revenue and the council lost in the region of £16,000 – with bar takings falling well below the total required to break even.

A request to clarify the situation over anybody’s culpability and any subsequent action taken against them was refused by the council, leaving several unanswered questions.

Hazy Days did not take place this summer. It said it left the Trop due to ‘changes and transitions’ at the venue, and a myriad of issues subsequently saw the event eventually cancelled altogether.

Hazy Days organiser Mark Whitehouse told the Mercury the 2017 festival ‘was a great event for the town’.

He said: “We have a small team of unpaid volunteers which brought great music to Weston. We did what was asked of us by the council and volunteers received no money.”

Hazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark AthertonHazy Days 2017 at the Tropicana. Picture: Mark Atherton

Transparency denied by ‘negative publicity’ fears

The council has rejected numerous FOI requests relating to Hazy Days.

In one response, the council said it was engaged in commercial discussions and added: “It believes the disclosure of the details requested and the inevitable negative publicity created by the various interest groups will cause the collapse of those discussions and thereby prevent the council from turning the Tropicana into a sustainable commercial venue for the benefit of the community.”

The Mercury also attempted to access a document relating to ‘financial irregularities’ – as referenced within council minutes – to do with the Tropicana, which executive member David Pasley said in February he had yet to see the full report on. The council has since refused the FOI request to release it, arguing disclosure would reveal personal information about former staff members.

Mandy Bishop, assistant director for development and environment, admitted in a letter there were problems with stock control and management procedures at the Trop.

In a letter to our reporter, she said: “The council wishes to be as open and transparent as possible.

“I can confirm during 2017 we identified a number of improvements in stock control and other management procedures which needed to be addressed.

“I am pleased to say since then we have completely restructured the delivery model and are confident that we have the right business arrangements in place for 2018 and beyond.”

Following an appeal, the council’s information manager Mike Riggall described Ms Bishop’s letter as ‘an attempt at transparency’ but also refused to release the report. The Mercury continues to fight for its public release. The council also failed to publish payments of more than £250 to Hazy Days Ltd on its DataShare website, which is a legal requirement of local authorities, until prompted by a Mercury FOI in May. The omission was blamed on a ‘technical fault’.

Questions still unanswered

The Mercury and members of the public have made attempts, through FOI requests, to obtain information relating to the Trop’s finances.

The council has refused the requests, arguing disclosure carries ‘a real risk of reputation damage and loss of customer confidence in using the venue’ which could put the long-term future of the venue at risk.

However, the Mercury has seen documents which show the authority has made a loss of £298,735 since it started operating it as a venue in 2015-16.

Cllr Mike Bell said: “There are clearly question marks about the wider management control and business planning at the Trop. A lot of money has been spent on capital works, a lot lost in the running of operations, and still more will be spent in the coming years. I’ve still not seen a business plan for the property or any coherent strategy.”

The revelations about Hazy Days come as the council is waiting to hear about a £1.1million bid to turn the Trop into a 9,000-capacity arena.

The council lost £138,874 on the venue in 2017-18, which it blames on the cost of hiring café staff through an agency contract – which it admits was ‘not appropriate for the business model’ – and making £30,000 less at the Bay Café than it had anticipated.

It also made a £50,000 shortfall on events, for which it blamed cancellations and said it was still learning which events ‘successfully contribute to the bottom line’.

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