25 January 2023

Realising the power of events

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Can major events - from the Coronation to the Olympics, Cities of Culture to this year's marking of the Windrush 75th anniversary - help to bring people together, boost local economies and increase people's wellbeing? A new inquiry from Spirit of 2012 set out to establish how to ensure a positive legacy from events. British Future submitted evidence to the inquiry and our Director Sunder Katwala reports here from the launch of its final report.

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What is a Coronation for? The King acceded to the throne automatically at the very moment of the death of his mother last September, though solemn rituals of national mourning naturally dominated that period. This will be the latest iteration of a ceremonial tradition of crowning Kings and Queens that stretches back over a thousand years in both England and Scotland – though everybody who is younger than the 74-year-old King will be witnessing this for the first time in our lives.

That will make the Coronation an important occasion for many people. Yet it will also illuminate arguments about what we want our society to stand for. Most people support a constitutional monarchy – but up to a quarter of the public are against this principle. How far will that prove a barrier to taking part in local community events? The Coronation period – perhaps rather more than the Queen’s funeral last year – should also be a focal point for hearing both sides of that argument in our democratic society. There will be an uneven pattern of Coronation events across the nations and regions of the UK, which may highlight broader questions about how much this multi-national and somewhat disunited Kingdom still wants to share in common. It is striking, however, that in Northern Ireland’s divided society, a quarter of a century after the Good Friday agreement, there is a growing civic emphasis on the importance of respecting traditions and identities that matter to neighbours, even when people do not share those allegiances themselves.

Buckingham Palace has just set out more details of what will happen across the four days of the long Coronation weekend. The question of who will feel invited is not just about immediate family members, after Prince Harry’s memoirs about his decision to go into exile. The Coronation’s reach across places and social classes, across political viewpoints, across generations and geographies may also depend on what we hear that it is about.

But what happens next? Why do events matter? The social purpose of major events – and how to maximise their benefits – is the subject of a timely major inquiry from Spirit of 2012, chaired by Thomas Hughes-Hallett, the final report of which was launched at the House of Commons this week.

The injunction for event organisers, at every level, is to always be asking “what next?”. That question of legacy remains important whether one is organising the type of national event that may take place twice a century, or a much wider range of national, regional and local events.

The inquiry’s report models the behaviour that it recommends by deliberately choosing to be a constructive and forward-looking publication. This reflects scepticism about two contrasting types of retrospective report. Organisers naturally seek to amplify and cheerlead for a story of success, while those on the outside can critique with the benefit of hindsight. Both approaches can crowd out a more reflective engagement that could improve knowledge transfer for future events, and reduce the need to reinvent every wheel each time.

So the report seeks insights from positive examples of sustained impact.

Liverpool’s 2008 European city of culture was a strong catalyst for sustained legacy that “could be seen in the swagger of the residents” – giving the city confidence. Hull’s 2017 City of Culture bid saw a sustained and visible volunteer programme persist. Hull volunteer Judy King told the Commons meeting that it “made volunteering normal” in the city, and increased its profile and status. That proved of value again during the pandemic. Yet the report shows why more consistency and rigour in understanding why, when and how volunteering surges and spikes are sustained could be one important area to improve outcomes.

Its forward-looking perspective means that the report does not dwell on missed opportunities. It chooses not to explore why last year’s Unboxed festival of the United Kingdom passed by without most people hearing that they were invited. Instead, the report highlights how Unboxed’s Dandelion project in Scotland bucked the pattern. It demonstrated how rooting engagement in local communities – literally, by sowing, growing together – could open up a broader story about sustainability and community.

One practical constructive proposal is an events observatory to marshal evidence and data on long-term impacts. This would address some key gaps in the evidence to the inquiry, highlighted in reports from thinktanks IPPR and British Future. The evidence-base on economic benefits is rather thin, partly due to producer interest in over-spinning potential when making the case for a bid. On social connection, there is the further difficulty of a lack of consensus or a consistent framework on what to measure, why and how. This reinforces an excessive focus on making somewhat over-spun claims about overall public reach, which may include very fleeting contact, but which often crowds out what the report sees as substantively more important, such as maintaining focus on who feels included and excluded.

Another key question asked by the report is whether we focus too much on the shiny national flagship moments to the neglect of the local. What emerges is a case for thinking strategically about how to connect the national and local spheres more coherently and more consistently. People do tend to have more confidence in our local connections than in the state of the nation. That may be best used as a foundation and a springboard for broader reach – especially if we want to maximise the potential for events to create new, perhaps unexpected opportunities for contact and meaningful connection across social divides, rather than simply participating in parallel with those who we think of as ‘people like us’.

The report proposes a new City of Sport contest, with a feasibility study planned to explore this idea.  Echoing the successful UK City of Culture programme, this would aim to increase engagement in sport and physical activity, boosting the local population’s health and growing tourist numbers, increasing volunteering and helping to bridge social divides. The probability that the Euro 2028 men’s football tournament will be co-hosted across the UK and Ireland may offer a new way for thinking about legacy. With four years to prepare, the national event could become a showcase for efforts made by the game across nations and regions from 2024 to 2028, not just something that begins when the tournament ends.

“Legacy is difficult,” Tanni Grey-Thompson told the Commons launch event. It is often a story told retrospectively, The 1992 Olympics catalysed a dramatic shift in Barcelona’s European and global status, but the city’s modern renaissance was more a retrospective account of the impacts than the pre-games strategy. London 2012 took intentional thinking about legacy up a level. A decade on, there are many sustained legacies – from the impact in Stratford to the status not just of disabled sport but public understanding of inclusion. What the games did not do is shift the dial on sporting participation, which was the topline legacy goal at the start.

The report’s challenge is timely because, in tougher economic times, there will be more pressure to demonstrate economic and social impact, particularly where public funding is involved. Inquiry chair Thomas Hughes-Hallett expressed scepticism about appeals to “pride” as a sufficient legacy for major events, suggesting that it could become a fall-back alibi if there is a lack of rigorous evidence about other impacts.

Most events do not require multi-million pound budgets and new infrastructure. This Coronation year coincides with the 75th anniversaries of the Windrush and the NHS. Anniversaries can be used creatively to deepen public conversations about what our past means for our present and future, particularly when national occasions can have a broad local presence.

Events matter – not just for the experiences and memories they provide, nor for their economic impact alone. They matter because we live in a society that is more fragmented and anxious than any of us would want. So the moments that bring us together are important. They can help to reassure us that we do have more in common than we can sometimes tell ourselves. Where this inquiry makes a significant contribution is in its insistence that event organisers, at all levels, think and act intentionally to realise the potential of events more effectively and consistently.

Read the Spirit of 2012 ‘Power of events’ inquiry report here

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