The future of UK music festivals Contents

4Securing a safe and sustainable future for festivals

63.Although the immediate pressures of the pandemic are the most pressing for the festival sector, it faces a number of structural and long-term challenges including reducing its environmental impacts, tackling the dangers of illegal drug use and combatting ticket touts. The sector’s post-Covid recovery presents both opportunities and challenges to addressing these issues.

Environmental impacts

64.UK festivals generate 25,800 tonnes of waste, 22,876 tonnes of CO2 and use 185 million litres of water annually.125 Festival-goers produce 2kg of waste per person per day: “nearly twice as much as is produced per person per day from household waste”.126 Despite an industry-wide pledge to halve the negative environmental impacts of festivals by 2025, and a “23% reduction in relative emissions per audience day from energy, waste, and water, mainly driven by diverting waste from landfill”, total music festival carbon emissions from energy, waste, and water on-site have actually risen over the past five years, “driven by a nearly 50% increase in audience numbers”.127 Similarly, environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle told us that “sector-wide progress on diesel use reduction […] barely changed” between 2015 and 2018.128

65.Robert Del Naja, vocalist with Massive Attack, told us that he was “livid” at the “the lack of meaningful activity” to reduce emissions from live music. He said that, as artists, “if we are going to make declarations we want to stand by them and know that meaningful action will follow” rather than participating in the “greenwashing” that arises from industry pledges that do not translate into action.129 Likewise, Professor Carly McLachlan from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research said that the failure for sector pledges to achieve results demonstrates “a need for a clear policy and regulatory framework” that holds the industry to account on its efforts to reduce carbon emissions.130

66.Professor McLachlan told us that the sector’s recovery from the pandemic provides an opportunity to reimagine how festivals operate and “build back better […] into a more sustainable version”.131 She recommends that festivals reduce primary emissions by incentivising audiences to travel via mass-electrified transport and by sourcing power via the national grid or renewable energy suppliers, rather than from less efficient generators. Likewise, Dr Smith from the University of Westminster stated that “if venues had their own power, water and other key infrastructure, this might lessen the considerable number of vehicle movements and polluting generators that tend to accompany most major festivals”.132

67.The feasibility of making such changes depends on a festival’s location as much as organisational will. Dr Smith told us that the pandemic offers “scope to think more imaginatively about where urban festivals are held”. For example, “the relocation of the Field Day festival from Brockwell Park to an industrial site, Meridian Water in Enfield” shows that “successful festivals can be staged in brownfield sites, private estates or stadium venues: they don’t have to be staged in green spaces or public parks.133 Likewise, Professor McLachlan told us not “every festival needs to move but […] this would be a time to consider for a long-term low-carbon future, is this the right venue for us? Could we, should we be somewhere else?” She acknowledged that while “festivals where the location is really a central part of their identity may not want to do that”, they could still think about getting a grid connection or renewable energy sources.134

68.Others have warned that the pandemic could simply exacerbate festivals’ environmental impacts. Travel and transportation related emissions have “consistently been found to make up at least 80% of an event’s carbon footprint”; however, changing behaviours due to the pandemic could undermine ambitions to reduce reliance on private transport. Public transport information platform, Zipabout, warned:

Before the pandemic, only 20% of UK festival-goers used public transport (train and coach) to travel to and from events. If festivals do go ahead in 2021 there is a risk even more passengers will travel by private car, making it harder for festival organisers to predict crowding and stagger customers.135

Environmental charity Julie’s Bicycle recommended that the Government work with the industry “on a campaign to facilitate and celebrate rail travel to events in 2021 and 2022 to help build consumer confidence and avoid a ‘rebound’ of audience travel into private vehicles”.136 Similarly, sustainability not-for-profit A Greener Festival told us that “increased single use plastics usage through PPE […] are putting additional strain and expense on festivals and support is needed to help them to identify, navigate, and innovate the new normal to be a greener normal”.137

69.As more local authorities declare a climate emergency, their role licensing events could incentivise festivals to reduce their emissions and contribute to wider sustainability goals.138 Local authority requirements currently rank low as a driver of environmental action, with Julie’s Bicycle telling us “declarations of climate emergency and central Climate Change Act targets are not yet translating into policy signals or incentives on the ground”.139 Professor McLachlan recommended that local authorities require festivals not just to consider their environmental impacts but to have a clear plan for reducing them, and for licensing to be contingent on progress being made against those targets.140 The Minister for Digital and Culture told us that she supported the proposal as it “is very important that local authorities make sure that they include strict environmental measures within their licensing framework”.141

70.Professor McLachlan also called for independent oversight to hold the industry to account. A regular review convened by Government, for example, would also give the sector an opportunity to tell policy-makers what help it needs to make faster progress.142 The Minister disagreed that there is a role for Government as “there is great progress being made already, and […] a huge will within the sector to continue in this vein”.143 However, Julie’s Bicycle warned that this progress is under threat:

with festivals facing additional financial pressures from both Covid-19 and Brexit and few policy incentives, without external support and environmental requirements built into recovery, voluntary environmental budgets and action will be vulnerable. Action to reduce environmental impacts will stall, or may even reverse.144

71.Despite the good intentions and countless initiatives to reduce the environmental impacts of festivals, the growth of the market has undermined the sector’s efforts to reduce overall emissions, and the legacy of the pandemic presents a further threat to those measures. The Government and local authorities should signal their commitment to emissions targets by holding the festival sector to account on, and supporting, its pledges to reduce emissions, rather than letting it continue to mark its own homework.

72.We recommend that before the 2023 festival season the Government, the Local Government Association and representatives from across the festival sector develop standardised environmental objectives that local authorities must adopt when licensing festivals, and that local authorities should report back to DCMS on those events’ progress at reducing emissions year-on-year.

Drug-related harm at festivals

73.Although not all festivals are affected equally, many must plan for the eventuality that illegal drugs will be dealt and consumed onsite and they employ a range of measures to prevent drug use, from searches and awareness campaigns to amnesty bins.145 Research indicates that about half of those attending festivals take drugs, while the UK has one of the highest rates of drug-related deaths in Europe.146 This leads Boomtown’s Anna Wade to argue that the “zero-tolerance approach of, ‘Don’t do drugs, they’re illegal,’ does not work with young people […] and it just does not keep people safe”.147

74.Professor Fiona Measham, director of drug-checking service The Loop and Chair in Criminology at the University of Liverpool, told us that there are particular risks associated with drug use at festivals. Her research has found that festivals are sites of “excessive” and “atypical” intoxication: a quarter of festival-goers take larger quantities of drugs at festivals than they would normally, and the risks are compounded by their consumption of alcohol, disrupted sleep patterns and the length of the festival experience.148 Moreover, drug dealers at festivals “are twice as likely to mis-sell substances on site as neighbourhood dealers”, which Professor Measham attributes to the fact that with “tens of thousands of people in a crowd, they can sell pretty much anything, disappear, and there is no recourse”.149 Finally, some festival-goers “only take drugs at festivals once a year, so their tolerance will be lower, and also their knowledge of the market will be lower”. Professor Measham has “seen people in their 30s and 40s and older get into trouble for that reason, this once a year blow-out, and they are unaware of what is in circulation”.150

The risks at festivals this year

75.The unique nature of the 2021 festival season could increase the risks of drug-related harm. The drugs market and people’s behaviour once restrictions are lifted are cause for concern: Switzerland has recently “tested the highest strength [MDMA] pills in circulation ever”, and at New Zealand’s recent festivals “about half of substances sold as MDMA” were tested to be another substance.151 Professor Measham told us that as “most people have not been to festivals or nightclubs for a year” they will have “lowered tolerance to drugs”, while Assistant Chief Constable Justin Bibby of Staffordshire Police told us of a likely “increase in risk-taking behaviour”.152 As a result, Professor Measham is concerned that “drug-related harm will increase”, and the number of drug-related deaths at festivals this year will also rise.153

76.The likely consolidation of the festival season this summer will also prevent agencies from testing drugs in circulation and issuing alerts ahead of events. Usually organisations such as The Loop start testing substances in May, and by the main festival season there is robust intelligence about what is in circulation and what the risks are. However, Professor Measham said that this year it feels “like we are going to be fighting with one arm tied behind our backs at the beginning of the festival season”.154

77.As we have already explored, job losses could mean that experience in dealing with people under the effects of illegal substances is lost. Deputy Chief Constable Jason Harwin, the National Police Chiefs’ Council Lead for Drugs, told us that “40% to 50% of the stewarding on site at festivals will not be the same people who were there two years ago” and the potential lack of expertise about dealing with those experiencing drug-related harms could create a “real risk”.155 Yet despite these concerns and the need for public health and law enforcement agencies to build their intelligence in advance of the festival season, the Minister told us that preventing drug-related harms “is not being considered” in the pilots of the Events Research Programme.156

Drug checking

78.Drug checking is among the measures that some festivals, including Boomtown, have employed to reduce the risks of drug-related harm. Drug checking involves testing a substance to determine its content and strength and then issuing health advice based on the results. It can happen ‘back-of-house’ on substances that have been seized from the public, or ‘front-of-house’ when people voluntarily submit samples for testing. Its advocates stress that it neither promotes illicit drug use nor claims that any drug is safe, but rather helps drug users to make informed choices “to reduce the risk of poisoning, overdose or other harmful effects caused by ingesting substances of unknown content or strength”.157 However, the provider of medical services for Glastonbury and Reading festivals cautioned:

Back-of-house testing of seized substances can provide useful intelligence, but [we believe] that the benefit of front-of-house testing of samples submitted by festival-goers is not established and there is real potential for unintended consequences which does not appear to have been adequately assessed.158

79.The Loop conducts front-of-house Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) at UK festivals. Substances are submitted by the public for rapid forensic analysis by professional chemists in pop-up laboratories. The results of those tests and tailored harm-prevention advice is then given by healthcare professionals to the individual who submitted the substance. They will be told, for example, about the harms of mixing particular substances or consuming alcohol at the same time as an illegal drug. The Loop operates on a cross-agency basis, involving festival organisers, licensing authorities, the police and public health officials. This means information about the drugs circulating at an event is passed to the police or medical services, while any surplus substances are destroyed or passed to the police.159

80.Since 2016, “there have been no drug-related deaths at any festival that MAST has operated at and some evidence of reduced hospital admissions”.160 Evidence suggests festivals see a 10% to 25% reduction in drug-related harm when The Loop operates on site, and that it changes behaviours: half of those who find out that substances are not what they thought they were sold hand the drugs over to be destroyed, with similar proportions who find out substances are stronger than they thought taking less to prevent overdose.161 More than 95% of the people who use The Loop’s services “have never spoken to a healthcare professional about their drug use before”, which means the organisation “offers information and advice directly to a typically hard to reach demographic of predominantly young adults about the risks of drug use and the hidden dangers that can exist in experimentation without knowledge”.162

81.However, the legal framework for drug checking in the UK is a barrier to organisations such as The Loop. Under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, “the possession, supply or production of any amount of a controlled drug without a licence—where one is needed—is a criminal offence”; therefore, The Loop relies on the police not enforcing the law against people handing over substances for testing.163 While the Home Office can issue licences for organisations to handle controlled drugs, these “have always been for fixed sites, permanent laboratories and not for mobile facilities” such as tents in festival fields.164 Professor Measham told us that the cost of having to apply for a licence for each festival would be prohibitive, and even if The Loop was licensed it would not be specifically for drug checking, which is different from handling substances.165 The Loop can operate at a festival only if local police forces agree, and Professor Measham “would appreciate having greater clarity about the legislative and policy framework that we operate in because legal opinions differ”.166 DCC Harwin described the current situation as “a no-man’s land […] where policing is stuck in the middle”.167

82.In 2018, the Government stated that the Home Office does not stand in the way of any decision to permit The Loop to conduct MAST at a festival as these “are local operating decisions”; however, the AIF observes that “there is some confusion between agencies at national level”. For example, We are FSTVL in Essex told us that it has tried on several occasions “to introduce Multi Agency Safety Testing (MAST) testing […] but each attempt has been denied by the Metropolitan Police”. The AIF therefore recommends that the Government:

clarify the current policy situation, support professional lab-level drug checking of the type delivered by the Loop to reduce drug-related harm at festivals, and to work with the UK’s MAST service provider to enable roll out across the UK.168

83.In doing so, the UK Government might learn from New Zealand, which passed legislation in December 2020 to allow drug and substance testing services to operate legally over the country’s summer festival season. New Zealand’s Drug and Substance Checking Legislation Act enables drug testing services to legally handle controlled drugs for the purposes of testing a substance’s composition or disposing of a sample.169 It remains illegal for members of the public to possess controlled drugs and unapproved psychoactive substances. The Act’s provisions will last for 12 months, after which time New Zealand’s Ministry of Health is expected to have developed a full system to regulate drug checking services permanently.

84.We asked DCC Harwin and ACC Bibby if they would support a change in the law to permit drug checking services to operate in the UK. They were clear that any legislative change would have to be based on evidence, but also indicated that the scale of drug checking in the UK has been too small to build a robust evidence base, and that a year of potential evidence building has been lost to Covid-19.170 DCC Harwin also told us that “the Home Office should not technically lead” on legislative changes in this area, and that it “should be led more by the Department of Health and Social Care because really it is a public health response”.171 There is also a financial challenge to overcome: The Loop is staffed by volunteer chemists and healthcare staff, so does not charge festivals for its services. If it did, the true cost “would probably be £50,000 or £60,000 per festival”, which raises questions about how the UK might have an economically sustainable but accurate drug-checking service in the future.172

85.The Minister told us that “there have been no conversations between” DCMS and the Home Office to discuss learning from New Zealand’s approach or evidence. She was clear that the Government’s view is “that no illicit drug can be assumed to be safe” and expressed concern that drug checking could give the wrong impression that a substance is safe. However, Professor Measham stressed that The Loop is always clear with service users “that the safest way to take drugs is not to take them at all” and that it will “never return substances to people” nor “encourage, facilitate or assist with drug use”; the Minister later admitted that she had “not done enough research or investigation” into The Loop’s work to conclude that it sends a message that drugs are safe.173

86.We are highly concerned that a compressed festival season, the likely circulation of high-strength, adulterated drugs and increased risk-taking after lockdown will lead to a spike in drug-related deaths at festivals this summer. We heard compelling arguments that drug checking saves lives, but in many cases service providers and police forces are being constrained by a lack of clarity in the legal framework and the need for a stronger evidence base. While it would be preferable for the UK to develop a dedicated legal framework for drug checking services, rather than try to retrofit the existing legislation, this will take time.

87.We recommend that, before festivals take place this summer, the Home Secretary should make regulations under section 7 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 that allow organisations conducting drug checking to operate lawfully. Thereafter, the Government should introduce a dedicated licensing scheme for drug checking to set a clear legal framework and minimum standards that service providers must meet. Within the next six months, DCMS should convene a roundtable on such a licensing scheme bringing together the Home Office, the Department of Health and Social Care, police representatives, festival organisers and service providers.

Secondary ticketing

88.The effects of the pandemic could exacerbate long-standing issues with the resale of tickets. If restrictions are not lifted in time, some sold out festivals will not go ahead this summer and ticket-holders will have to secure a refund or roll-over their tickets to next year. This should be straightforward if tickets have been purchased through official, primary platforms; however, our predecessor Committee’s inquiry on live music heard how consumers can struggle to secure refunds for tickets bought on secondary resale sites such as viagogo. The Minister does not consider it irresponsible for organisers to sell tickets for these events because it gives them “the confidence to want to go ahead”; however, she told us that the Government “would always recommend that [consumers] buy tickets from a reputable site, because you are more likely to have the protections in place that you need if things do not go ahead”.174

89.Although some festivals have robust measures in place to stop the resale of tickets by touts, not all do. Touts buy up large numbers of tickets from primary ticketing platforms to resell at a profit, often by using bots to make large volumes of transactions at speed. The Breaching of Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations 2018, which the Government committed to review before 2023, made it an offence to use automated computer programmes to purchase more tickets than allowed under an event’s terms and conditions for financial gain.175 However, the fight against touts depends on both the intervention of primary ticketing platforms and promoters setting purchase limits for events. We asked whether the Minister is concerned that the industry’s significant loss of revenue during the pandemic might make it less inclined to take such steps against touts, and she replied “it is something we will definitely keep an eye on”.176 Likewise, following concerns that Google continues to promote secondary sites in breach of its own advertising guidelines, she confirmed that DCMS will review online advertising later this year.177

90.With tickets on sale for festivals that might not take place, we are concerned that the difficulty of securing refunds from secondary ticketing platforms, and the industry’s understandable desire to maximise sales, could mean consumers lose out as the events industry emerges from the pandemic. We recommend that the Government assesses the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in its Post Implementation Review of the Breaching of Limits on Ticket Sales Regulations 2018, which it committed to conducting between 2021 and 2023.

125 Association of Independent Festivals (FES0034) para 9.1

128 Julie’s Bicycle (FES0065) para 4.3

132 Dr Andrew Smith (FES0086)

133 Dr Andrew Smith (FES0086)

135 Zipabout Ltd (FES0037)

136 Julie’s Bicycle (FES0065) para 3.2

137 A Greener Festival (FES0045)

138 A Greener Festival (FES0045)

139 Julie’s Bicycle (FES0065) para 2.1

144 Julie’s Bicycle (FES0065) para 1.2

157 Q44, Association of Independent Festivals (FES0034) para 9.24

158 Festival Medical Services (FES0020)

160 Association of Independent Festivals (FES0034) para 9.31

162 Q243, Association of Independent Festivals (FES0034) para 9.28

163 Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (FES0064), Q271

168 Association of Independent Festivals (FES0034) para 9.35

175 DCMS Committee, Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, Live Music, HC 733 and Eighth Special Report of Session 2017–19, Live music: Government Response to the Committee’s Ninth Report of Session 2017–19, HC 2555

Published: 29 May 2021 Site information    Accessibility statement