All the Fun of the Fair
by Bill Hartley
‘Joint Working’ is a concept that is prevalent throughout government and the civil service. The idea is that where responsibilities lie in close proximity, an inter departmental committee might better manage these. This can work but it requires strong leadership and those assigned to the committee need to be sufficiently senior, otherwise their role may extend no further than voicing enthusiasm and a promise to report back.
Interestingly, this approach can be found at work far from central government. The county of Cumbria has a committee which rejoices in the grandiose title of Multi Agency Strategic Planning Group. Note the word ‘strategic’, a hostage to fortune if ever there was one. The group is so well known in the local press that there is no need for the full title. Everyone understands what MASPG stands for and the group has been hard at work on behalf of the citizens of a small town in the county. From an outsider’s perspective the main strategic challenge in Cumbria might be thought to be inconsiderate car parking in the Lake District. However, there is an annual event which has drawn the attention of this multi-agency group, even though some locals consider it largely a police matter.
Appleby lies just off the A66 and is famous for its annual horse fair. Each year, in June, some 10,000 members of the Gypsy and Traveller Community descend on the town to buy and sell horses and to socialise. Last year, due to COVID restrictions, the fair was cancelled. Some Gypsies and Travellers took exception to this and turned up anyway. The strategic planners in MASPG therefore had plenty of warning ahead of this year, when once again the fair had to be cancelled.
Imagine someone organising a music festival at the height of COVID restrictions. It is reasonable to assume that the police would have be out in numbers, stopping traffic to turn people away and that the organisers would eventually be charged and brought to court. Gypsies and Travellers, however, aren’t viewed the same way, since the authorities have designated them a Community. As a consequence, the police response was muted. The Metro reported that they ‘pleaded with them’ to stay home and reminded people that COVID restrictions forbade gatherings of more than 30 people. In June, when the fair is usually held, some turned up. The numbers that arrived varied depending upon the source doing the counting. One newspaper reported 400. MASPG went for ‘only’ 150, though neither source was precise about whether this represented a total for the week or just a particular day. The Sun quoted a man from King’s Lynn who said he’d ‘come to buy some fertilizer’.
Whilst the strategists of MASPG failed to anticipate the arrivals, the locals didn’t. ‘We knew they’d come anyway’ was one comment. Preventing it didn’t seem to have been considered by MASPG who may have exacerbated the problem by being deliberately vague about when the event would be rescheduled. In fairness, they would have had to await government announcements on the easing of restrictions. Even so, any strategic planner armed with a road atlas could have discovered that Appleby is an easy town to seal off. Police in the crowded south east seem to manage it when seeking to prevent an illegal gathering. In Appleby there is only the one main road nearby.
With Appleby getting a horse fair whether the locals liked it or not MASPG endeavoured to defend itself. First came the figures. As noted above, they preferred the lower one of 150. This prompted a dubious statistic based perhaps on the usual attendance at the horse fair, though the source wasn’t explained. MASPG suggested that 98.8% had stayed away as requested. Based on their figure but looking at it another way, due to the failure to act, Appleby with its 3,000 inhabitants saw a 5% population increase in the midst of a pandemic and the authorities did nothing. Then, with no sense of irony, the chair of MASPG thanked ‘everyone for their patience and willingness to find common ground during what is a difficult time for everyone’. What he might have said was: our strategic planning failed to protect you, the locals, from the arrival of Travellers in the midst of a pandemic. Incidentally, a few years ago, the cost of managing the fair came to £250,000. Cumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner was rather more direct: he told the Sun ‘if I could stop it, I would’.
For the locals, all the fun of the fair can include litter and human waste, drink related disorder, bare knuckle fighting and the local golf course being turned into a camp site. The police view of this seems to be that the fair is a success if they manage to keep any anti-social activities under control. MASPG has now decided that the fair will be held in August, which has caused uproar amongst the locals. This is a busy month for agriculture and consequently there have been complaints from farmers. August is a time when they need to move machinery along the narrow lanes of Cumbria. For some Travellers, the prospect of a rescheduled fair meant there didn’t seem to have been much incentive to go away and come back again. Instead, they can be found camped out along the lanes of nearby County Durham. It would be a long journey to repeat for those Travellers who prefer the traditional horse drawn wagon.
As any civil servant might tell you, the real benefit of Joint Working is that no individual agency is held accountable. In Cumbria, the real priority, effective policing of the fair, can hide under the MASPG umbrella. Thanks to MASPG, the residents of Appleby will now be getting two horse fairs this year.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service
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