Sunday, 6 November 2011

Kettled on Quay Meadow: City Fireworks spark health & safety overkill

Hundreds of Lancastrians who came out to see the City Fireworks 'spectacular' trudged home disappointed last night after being subjected to a frenzy of health & safety regulation that saw a few hundred kettled in a corner of Quay Meadow while the rest were turned away minutes before the display started.

Although Quay Meadow had been advertised as a viewing area, most of the wide, flat, empty field was cordoned off, with only a section of it accessible. Unfortunately it was a corner where much of the firework display was actually screened off by trees. Kept from the tauntingly moonlit meadow and caged behind barriers, huddled the people, cheek by jowl. Pallid under glaring electic lights and so blasted by the speakers from the Radio Lancashire Roadshow that they couldn't have socialised even if they hadn't been busy desperately keeping track of their toddlers. The organisers seemed to have taken all their ideas from the Guantanamo Bay Party Book.

Sparklers were banned. Stewards and police watched suspiciously for any signs of pleasure breaking out. Anyone who had the temerity to go use the loo at the pub was refused permission to come back on the field, leaving separated parents frantic at the barriers.

On the Quay, hundreds of disbelieving parents and kids trooped around without a hope of getting to Giant Axe (even worse view) in time, where they were being sent by the police. While warehouses completely blocked the view from the road (and, mercifully, the music), both pedestrian bridges were packed and the far river bank inaccessible. A few took the 'Lune Resistance' route, through the trees, only to end up trapped in the Quay Meadow Kettle.

The fireworks display itself was clearly very much reduced from previous years, with about the half the show happening below the height of the tree line surrounding the launch site, teasingly invisible from most locations. Strangely, the music climaxed some time before the fireworks did, the finale happening in silence.

On the whole, it would have been more efficient to just put the money in a bucket and set fire to it. A few thousand people could have found a better use for the evening and the police could have gone home to their own families. Instead, we spent public funds to be made to feel like potential criminals, watched, regulated, herded, caged, restricted.

I realise it probably wasn't meant to be like that. It's just that the central planning priority seemed to be to forstall the possibility that we might all go mad and try to set fire to ourselves and each other in an alcohol-fuelled frenzy. This was clearly seen by the organisers as a very real threat at every point of the proceedings, and we were treated accordingly. It wasn't actually planned to prioritise the possibility of a community getting together in a relaxed and comfortable way as friends and families to enjoy a show.

So where's the love? Where's the community? Where's Bonfire Night? Up on the Ridge, the Gregson Bonfire Night went with a swing, with friends and neighbours and families getting together. Catching up with people they hadn't seen for ages. Sharing toffee. Lighting the blue touch paper and standing well clear, and so on. But for most communities, the legislation is unfathomable, so in most places bonfires are Not Allowed. Where Firemen were once seen as every child's natural hero, now, to many children, they are the spoilsports who come and put out your bonfires, which, as we sadly know, has led to distress and bitterness on both sides. Once, kids used to collect wood for their bonfires. Now, some just set fire to property.

A few years ago, bonfire night used to happen on the Quay Meadow too. A huge fire with a rope barrier to keep you mindful, and pretty much everyone you'd ever met could be found in the circle of fire-lit faces around it. You were there for the evening and there would be flasks of tea, coffee, soup or chocolate, or the odd bottle of wine or a hip-flask and plenty made trips to the two pubs as well. I remember, from my childhood, vendors selling black peas kept warm on paraffin stoves. Children from toddlers to pensioners wrote their names in sparkler-fire. People handed round boxes of treacle toffee and parkin. Much later, if you were still around when the fire burnt down, there were blackened potatoes in tinfoil, melted marshmallows and joints surreptitiously passed in the shadows.

Dads were in their element. With their cave-man fire building and keeping skills and innate knowledge of the safe handling of deadly explosives. Of course, most of our dads had fought Hitler and actually did have some basic skills, the foremost of which was knowing to read and follow the instructions on the fireworks box. Dads teamed up, making rocket launching sites, deputising the older kids to pace out the safety distances, as the smaller kids watched, learned the names of the different types of fireworks, had the safety basics dinned into them a hundred times and danced hysterically to firecrackers.

Back in the 1980s, the Farm collective and the kids from New Planet City made huge paper edifices to burn. I recall a rocket in which astronauts fought aliens and escaped down a chute as it blew up behind them. Yeah!

Bonfire Night is about friends, families and neighbours getting together in the dark and having fun with fire. It's not just about danger - it's also about trust and care making something lovely, and special. The City Fireworks Spectacular seems to be intended to replace that. As we trudged home last night, in silence, I realised we hadn't seen a single friend. I'd come a few minutes before the fireworks started and left at the end. There wasn't time, space or light to go meeting anyone. No warmth. Nothing. Just police and barricades. Stressed out people being watched for infractions. A few coloured lights and bangs through the trees.

I don't want to sound ungrateful, I know people have worked really hard, I'm really sorry about that. But the Fireworks Spectacular used to be fun. That's why it became popular. Now it isn't and no-one in their right mind would come back for a repeat of last night. Can we please fix the rules so we can just have Bonfire Night back?


Anonymous said...

A brilliantly observed ,truthful ,well writen article -we pay(council taxes ) for the display & we don't now get to even SEE & enjoy the display!! Surely its not beyond the councils capabilities to have a re-think & get the emphasis back on to a collctive family/friends fun ,enjoyable Bonfire night event ..???

Anonymous said...

This was a PR disaster for the Council and a huge disappointment for my kids.

Anonymous said...

I've always watched from Quay Meadow, which was great fun, even after they banned the bonfire.

This is year thought we watched from Williamson's Park. It was like watching a tiddlywinks competition from the back of Wembley Stadium while it was in the middle. 70% of the fireworks were invisible. Nearly 1,000 people in the park and the facilities were some music (very loud), long queues at the cafe and a manky looking burger van. We left before the end as it was just so disappointingly awful.

The Gregy bonfire and fireworks were emminently better so expect a ban for next year.

Brian said...

I'm glad I stayed at home now. Last year put me off with very poor audio, it was mainly Radio Lancs taking the opportunity to shove their adverts down our throats or interviews over the firework music. I said then it should be moved to Morecambe promenade with fireworks off the jetty. Perfect, natural viewing positions and safe.

Such a shame and a waste of a lot of time and money.

Anonymous said...

Totally agree. In my opinion Health and Safety was just being used as an excuse by a load of tin-pot dictators bent on spoiling everyone's fun. Apparently there was 4,000 allowed on Quay Meadow but couldn't actually see any of the stewards, marshalls, specials, community support officers or police counting people on and off the field. Maybe they had a secret device hid in the back of the black maria that was parked on the Quay!!! Total waste of tax payers money and if this is the way it is going to be run in the future we won't be supporting the event.
I would really like to hear some comments from the Council.

Anonymous said...

What a brilliant article. Once again the authorities attempt to control everything so no one within the council, police, fire service etc can have their chances of promotion spoiled by anything unexpected happening on their watch - except of course it's not their watch, it's our lives. Extremely sad.

Anonymous said...

Echoes my groups experience - been going every year - even after the banned bonfire - complete farce - think we'll be back to doing our own display next year - unless the council ban all those as well.

John Freeman said...

The City Council says of Quay Meadow and the event in general:

"16,000 people watched the fireworks from our four official viewing sites. We issued hundreds of evaluation forms on the night and will use that feedback to assist us in the development of the event.

"Regarding Quay Meadow - with any fireworks event of this scale, it is essential to have 'contingency areas' on viewing sites in case of emergencies if there is a need to quickly and safely move the crowd to a different part of the field.

"The cordon was extended, as had been planned, to increase the size of the spectating area, but an emergency space was still necessary for the reasons outlined." [See the Council's statement on the Display for these - (

Chris Satori said...

Thanks for the update. It's interesting to hear from an unnamed Council spokesperson that at a crowd event a space must be kept available in case the crowd has to be urgently moved. (In the case of Quay Meadow this was about twice as large as the space permitted to the crowd.) I guess that means they can't hold concerts at Wembley or the O2, or show plays at the Grand Theatre. And they certainly can't have alcohol in those places, right?
There were enough police out on Saturday to deal with a riot. At enormous cost to the ratepayers. It is quite wrong to say to say that there were no 'incidents'. The money has to come from somewhere. Services critical to the care of vulnerable people are being cut. Services to young people, disabled adults and children, elderly people, domestic violence services. All these cuts result in harmful 'incidents'. You can't get a factory inspector into a workplace for love or money, but try to have a little fun and you'll be regulated to within an inch of your life.

Adam said...

I too watched from Williamson Park, and I observed a firework display with all the dignity and glamour of a local radio station broadcast.

Seriously, who had the bright idea to let radio Lancashire 'narrate' the fireworks? A rather tacky and pointless endeavour... furthermore, telling us what a wonderful and amazing display we had just witnessed seemed to indicate that they were at some other location watching some other display.

I was stood close to two large groups of people that night. The first, a group of students new to the area that had been convinced that Lancaster puts on a really good show. The second, a gathering of people from outside Lancaster... actual tourists.

As a local, I felt the need to apologise. Fortunately this wasn't too difficult since there was no chance of the display interrupting me whilst I explained that it used to be so much better.

This was not an austerity display, and don't believe them if they say that... an austerity fireworks display would encourage people to entertain themselves, not seek to ban sparklers and any chance of being warmed by a fire.

and on a final note... did anyone notice that there were still quite a few people watching the display up at the Castle/Priory? They were not the technicians, so who were they? Council Staff, saving a decent seat for themselves? I don't know, and I wouldn't like to cast aspersions, much.

Smuzz said...

Please understand that - though this sort of insanity is always reported to be 'Health and Safety', this sort of thing is not 'Health and Safety'. Far from it.
Every day we hear of some new insanity under the name of 'Health and safety' and our country is ruled by it.
In fact, the cause for this sort of thing is always Insurance - specifically insurance to pay for No Win No Fee claims. NoWin NoFee (Ads on your telly right now) make a lot of money from people claiming against Councils or small businesses (Never big ones, notice. There's a reason) and those organisations have to budget for that massive payout.
This cost is passed onto the Taxpayer, or the Customer of that small business and all too often it means that it's not economically possible for that Council Service/small business (Like, say, a playground or a park) to be continued as it attracts too many (Bonkers, but lucrative) claims for damages.
In times when the Government's massively cut back on Council spending, cancelling these things makes common sense.
The Health and Safety Executive is actively campaigning against just this Insurance-Claim-mentality, accusing it of 'Stifling childhood' and has for a long time run 'H&S Myth of the Month' on its website.

H&S, on the other hand, continues to fight for safe work practices against a Big Busines culture which wants to cut corners with no liability to themselves.
So, please remember, when the 'No Win No Fee' ads tell you 'You pay nothing' remember, you DO. Twice. First in taxes and higher prices for services, and, second, in the loss of facilities and the death of small businesses.
I only wish I knew of a campaign to oppose this insanity.
Can someone please start one?