Council refuses to release details of repayment plan agreed with Blackpool Pride organisers after using £68,000 of taxpayers' cash to bail them out

The council has refused to release details of a repayment plan agreed with Blackpool's Pride Festival organisers, after using £68,000 of taxpayers' cash to bail them out.

Tuesday, 28th January 2020, 5:00 pm

The authority handed over the cash after ticket sales failed to cover the costs of the two-day LGBT event, which was held last June, leaving it in danger of being axed with little notice.

At the time, it pledged to work to recoup the money, with £38,000 expected from sponsorship and other income, and £30,000 by turning a profit at future events.

Last month, it was revealed that just £8,000 had been clawed back through sponsorship and £2,800 through "other income", leaving an outstanding debt of £57,200.

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The Pride Festival in 2019
The Pride Festival in 2019

The festival's organisers had yet to pay a penny back and, despite the £30,000 repayment plan being put in place, the council refused to provide any further details.

A spokeswoman said she would be "surprised" if the details were to be released under the Freedom of Information Act, and the authority has now rejected a request from The Gazette, citing an exemption relating to commercial interests.

"It is the council's view that disclosure would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of both the council and the organisers of Blackpool Pride Festival..." papers read.

The council, which insisted it will still get back the full amount, has now been criticised by Coun Tony Williams, the opposition leader at the town hall.

He said: "This is public money - it does not belong to anyone in the council and the public have the right to know when they are going to get their money back.

"What is the council trying to hide? Hiding behind commercial sensitivity is a common mantra of this council and it has to stop. I doubt if we will ever see this money again."

Coun Simon Blackburn, the council's leader, said in July that Pride was an "important celebration of diversity, not just for visitors but for our residents too", and said: "Stepping in to save this year's festival was absolutely the right thing to do."

He added: "Cancellation would inevitably have impacted on visitors who had bought festival tickets and also those who had booked accommodation for the weekend, so many people would have been left disappointed.

"We will now work with the festival organisers in future years to help them create a sustainable event that is capable of returning a profit."

Heather Brooke, a freedom of information campaigner who helped to expose the 2009 MPs' expenses scandal, said in her book Your Right To Know: "In order to use the exemption for commercial interest, a public body must first prove that a commercial interest would be harmed by the release of information, and then conduct a public interest test.

"An important point to note is that when conducting the public interest test, the authority should not take into account any harm that may be caused to a private firm by disclosure.

"This is a private interest rather than a public interest and so should not be taken into account. However, if the disclosure affects the public authority's ability to do business, then that will be relevant."

Blackpool Council said it "recognises there is a clear public interest in transparency, particularly for agreements to repay monies owed", but added: "However, on this occasion the authority believes the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs this interest because a repayment plan has been agreed, which in turn provides best value for money for the local authority and public purse."

The Gazette has appealed the council's decision.

Music acts Right Said Fred, Jake Shears from the Scissor Sisters, Marc Almond from Soft Cell, and Lucy Spraggan are set to perform at this year's Pride festival, which will be held in the resort on Friday and Saturday, June 5 and 6.

"It promises to be one of the summer's main events, bringing a weekend of colour and excitement to the resort with something for everyone to enjoy," Coun Gillian Campbell, the council's deputy leader, said.

Tickets for the event, which is due to be held on the Tower Festival Headland, cost £20-70 for Friday or Saturday, or £32-128 for both nights.