Meet Camden’s killjoy ‘barbecue police’

Nathalie Rothschild reports from north London, where a local council’s ridiculous regulations are putting the dampers on a summer festival.

The Primrose Hill community centre in north London has been hosting a popular annual summer festival for the past 30 years. Yet this year, in order to qualify for the £400 grant from Camden Council that helps to make the festival a reality, the centre is having to jump through some pretty strange hoops.

The centre is being asked to fulfil a string of new requirements. These include making sure that five per cent of festivalgoers fill in a questionnaire to say whether they enjoyed themselves; inviting ‘under-represented groups’ to participate as stall-holders or performers; hiring only professional caterers who must be registered with their local authority; making sure all staff, artists and volunteers have a Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) check to ensure they do not have a history of harming children; and using only a gas barbeque. Under no circumstances may the Primrose Hill community festival use their traditional coal barbeque, even though it has not caused any accidents over the past three decades.

Alongside New Britain’s speech police, health-and-safety police and ethnic quotas police we can now add the Barbecue Police: council officials whose job it is to ensure that only the right kind of barbecue is used in the right kind of way by the right kind of people. Another bit of fun goes up in smoke.

Home to rich and famous people such as Kate Moss and Jude Law, the Primrose Hill suburb in north London is a quiet but fashionable neighbourhood surrounded by expansive parks and full of leafy streets with Victorian terraces, trendy bistros and chic boutiques. It is part of Camden, which has long been considered London’s most liberal borough. From the Camden Lock markets popular with tourists and young hipsters, to Hampstead’s lush parks and quaint cafés frequented by London’s literati, Camden has cultivated an image of being a progressive, leftish area. In truth, the authorities here are anything but open-minded.


Mick Hudspeth

I headed over to Primrose Hill to meet Mick Hudspeth, the manager of the community centre who is still reeling from Camden Council’s request that the volunteer who mans the barbecue stand at the summer festival – Keith Bird, who is in his seventies – must now attend a special health-and-safety, how-to-barbecue course. The centre’s courtyard is full of buggies; inside toddlers are playing and shouting. A message board advertises a drop-in playground, a bridge players’ club, music classes for babies, fitness groups for over-60s, yoga for pregnant women, and various other activities. Hudspeth thinks the community centre could host even more events and classes – if it was freed up from bureaucracy. Speaking of all the regulations and quotas imposed by the council, he says: ‘A lot of the time we concentrate so hard on ticking the right boxes. If we were left to just get on with it, we could do so much more.’

Hudspeth says he would be the first to complain if the council was just handing out money carelessly. He is sympathetic to the need to ensure that certain health and safety requirements are fulfilled. ‘Any responsible council has some measures in place’, he tells me in his cramped, cluttered office, all piles of paper and stuffed filing cabinets. But he says health and safety is ‘a balancing act’ and ‘you can only risk-assess to a certain level’: ‘Nothing is ever going to be 100 per cent safe.’ The festival organisers do take precautions, says Hudspeth, and the past 30 years are evidence of this; ‘nothing bad has happened’.

Hudspeth says the new requirements are further evidence that ‘PC and health and safety stuff has gone mad’. It is true that councils worrying about the supposed risks of coal barbeques is yet another sign that local authorities have become hotbeds of ridiculous regulations. And Camden is leading the charge: since last year, coal barbecues have been banned from all public places in the borough. Yet the risk-averse, PC, box-ticking mentality takes many forms. While it is easy to focus on obviously absurd examples – such as forcing a seventysomething man, who has been grilling burgers and sausages for the community for 30 years, to go on a special barbeque course – there is a range of ways in which community relations are being regulated and having the fun sucked out of them by local councils. And very often these measures are accepted as commonsensical rather than as outlandish examples of ‘PC gone mad’.

The ban on smoking in public places, for example, which comes into force on 1 July this year, has not been greeted with very much protest. And in parts of Camden, police officers and police community support officers have recently gained new powers to tell people in groups to disperse and to ban people from an area for up to 24 hours (1). Even though these dispersal orders and measures to tackle ‘anti-social behaviour’ have serious implications for freedom –  of movement and association – many accept that they are necessary measures to ensure ‘public safety’.

The new barbeque regulations look set to hit the festival hard. Bird, the 70-plus volunteer, has refused to go on the barbecue course. He told the Camden New Journal: ‘I’m not doing a test. I know how to run a barbecue. I’m not going to go on a course to tell me how to do it. Nobody has ever been hurt and we usually sell 500 or 600 items in a day. It’s another example of the nanny state telling us what we can and can’t do. This is ridiculous.’  (2)

Apart from Hudspeth, everyone who works on the festival does so on a voluntary basis. It is not a ‘money-making affair’. Visitors are only charged symbolic sums to take part in traditional games and entertainment. There are Punch and Judy shows for the kids and music performances by local groups. ‘The point is to involve locals who feel they are contributing to the community’, says Hudspeth. Yet even though the festival attracts 2,000 locals each year, Camden Council is demanding that it be ‘more inclusive’. In a pretty stern letter, the Community Festivals Grants Panel told Hudspeth that his grant application ‘did not demonstrate clear evidence of how the festival celebrates the area’s diversity’.

The Primrose Hill community centre does not exclude anyone on the basis of ethnicity. ‘We market our activities throughout our catchments area’, says Hudspeth. But Camden Council wants to make sure that everyone knows just how inclusive the festival is. So the festival, and everyone else who receives a Camden community festivals grant award, must now use the council’s logo and publish the following statement on all its publicity material: ‘Camden values and celebrates the diversity of its community.’


Chalcot Square, where the Primrose
Hill community festival is held

This forced model of inclusion makes a mockery of real community relations. Even though the Primrose Hill festival has been attracting locals to hang out, play games and enjoy themselves every summer for the past 30 years, council bigwigs now want to measure and formalise the festival’s levels of local inclusion. It is not enough that local people have quite spontaneously decided to come together: the council wants to peer through the festival gates to see who is coming together and why certain people have decided not to join in. Yet you cannot enforce a sense of community, and Camden Council’s attempts to do so could well put the dampers on the spontaneous community spirit of the Primrose Hill summer festival.

How does Hudspeth feel about the council imposing ethnic minority quotas on the community centre’s activities? ‘We can try to do our best to get ethnic minorities involved, but in an area like this, which is largely white and middle class, it is not always easy to fulfil quotas of ethnic diversity’, he says. He tells me it isn’t easy to get some people who have different cultures, or who are new to the area, to join in activities ‘un-coerced’.

It is hard to see how coercing people into signing up for community activities, sticking audience questionnaires into festivalgoers’ hands while they’re trying to enjoy a fun day out, and requiring volunteers to undergo CRB checks and barbeque courses will lead to the ‘community cohesion’ that local authorities – and the central government – are so keen to promote. As for ‘celebrating diversity’, any summer fair that doesn’t fit into Camden Council’s strict and narrow-minded mould will have its funding cut. Ironically, the more pressure the council puts on festivals in the borough to adhere to its multicultural agenda and stringent rules for health and safety, professional catering and eco-friendliness, the more samey those festivals will become.

Hudspeth tells me that so far he has not had to go out and recruit volunteers. There is plenty of goodwill around, he says, particularly among retired people with time on their hands. But if the tick box-obsessed killjoys at Camden Council keep insisting on treating community fairs as accidents waiting to happen, they shouldn’t be surprised if the goodwill soon starts petering out.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked

Previously on spiked

Munira Mirza explained why diversity is divisive. Josie Appleton argued that government volunteer programmes will not help create new communities. Tennis coach Dan Travis demonstrated that CRB checks are putting volunteers off. In his defence of bad luck, John Adams wrote that society must accept that ‘accidents happen’. Or read more at spiked issue Life.

(1) See Camden Council’s website

(2) Summer BBQ ban, Camden New Journal, 3 May 2007

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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