On Monday night, Ludlow Town Council debated whether to allow the May Fair this year. Councillors were told that only 30 people would be allowed into the fair at a time. Putting aside that would bankrupt any commercial operation, government rules say that 4,000 people, even more, are allowed for outdoor events such as funfairs. On the proviso they don’t all come at once and the familiar social distancing rules are enforced.
At the same meeting, councillors approved space for the Green Festival and the Fringe Festival in the town centre without a limit on numbers.
After what I can only describe as an ill-informed debate on Monday, councillors decided to ask for a Covid safe plan for the fair. If the fair goes ahead, it will be over the late May bank holiday. I hope it goes ahead as there is no legal barrier to it doing so.
Holding the May Fair on the market area and spilling into the top half of Mill Street is seen by some as an inconvenience. Others regard it as a noise nuisance. There are usually a few incidents of anti-social behaviour. Traders worry about the loss of pitches and their income, especially after the hit they took during the pandemic.
But Ludlow be Ludlow without the May Fair? This annual bout of noise, smells and jollity is ingrained into the soul of our town. It is as much a part of the town centre as the castle and market. It is in the town’s DNA.
Back in February, Ludlow Town Council voted to defer an application on whether the May Fair should be held this year until its next meeting. During the debate, Councillor Glen Ginger argued that the May Fair was established by Royal Charter for the first bank holiday of May. If the event was moved to the end of May “you can hold a fair whenever you want”. Councillor Parry and Perks agreed the charter could not be altered. Councillor Pote said that he had researched the matter of dates and it is legally allowable to hold the fair on the first bank holiday of May which might include the first of May. But, he added, “If we start moving [the fair] to suit ourselves, people will start saying we don’t want the fair at all.” It was agreed the matter would come back to the March meeting of the council.
At the March meeting, the council agreed to cancel the May Fair this year:
“That due to the restrictions imposed by government and the open plan nature of the town centre site, Ludlow Mayfair does not take place in 2021.”
But as lockdown eased and covid rates fell, councillors began to have second thoughts. At the debate on Monday night, councillors pushed to find ways of allowing the fair to go ahead. Councillor Parry said that as the Green Fair and Fringe Festival were going ahead with the council’s approval, the May Fair should go ahead:
“ People are asking me when is the May Fair coming back? You are not allowing it [but] it is one thing that people of this town really enjoy… I think we should have the May Fair back.”
The town clerk said the consideration was the dates and what is legally allowed on these dates. The request was to hold the fair at the end of the month but it was still before all the coronavirus social distancing restrictions would be lifted.
“We are still at the level where only 30 people are allowed to gather together in a public place. The town centre is a public place. It not an event. It is not a venue because there are no gates.”
This is not my reading of the rulebook. The government regulations are clear. From 17 April, outdoor activities, including funfairs, can take place outdoors providing people arrive and leave the event in a staggered manner throughout the day. People must not converge and congregate at a site for a discrete performance or activity – a theatre or music performance, for example. Events permitted from 17 April “are not subject to a capacity cap on attendees.” But the government expects these events to have fewer than 4,000 attendees per day. There is no mention of events being in bounded spaces or the need for gates.
Obviously, the May Fair must work safely. If any outdoor business is familiar with safety rules, it is the fun fairs that tour the towns of our country year in, year out. We can trust our long established fair operators.
During the debate, councillor Glen Ginger again raised the question of the Royal Charter because the fair will block the roads. I was surprised by this as we block town centre roads for all manner of festivals and events which do not have the dignity of a charter. He said the May Fair has to be a “non-starter”. At the prompting of the mayor, he formally opposed allowing the May Fair this year. Councillor Robin Pote said it “was just too risky a process to allow people to be coming from all around when the square is uncontrollable, for want of a better word.” Councillor Phil Adams said, “if it can go ahead, it should go ahead.” Councillor Viv Parry said, “There will be an uproar if you don’t allow it to go ahead when everything else is going ahead.”
Councillor Mark Clarke said it should go ahead. He said that if the organisers could come up with a downsized May Fair so that it was limited to 30 people, he thought it was more than workable. “I think the fair people should be given the opportunity to come up with a suitable plan… that is current Covid rules safe.” He said it was up to the council whether it wanted to run a May Fair on an alternative bank holiday weekend.
Councillors Di Lyle and Rose Jones supported Councillor Clarke, with Rose saying, “It’s going to look damn hard on us if we say no to the fair.”
The town clerk was challenged by Councillor Ginger who said that the meeting had already agreed the Green and Fringe Festivals could use town centre space: “Is a gathering of more than 30 people illegal”. The town clerk replied that a gathering or more than 30 people would be illegal. Pursuing the point, Councillor Ginger asked how more than 30 people could be stopped going to the fair. The town clerk replied you can’t stop them.
The debate continued and concluded with a vote requesting that the council asks the May Fair organisers to submit their Covid safe plans for approval. That’s very tight on timescale given that the fair arrives in just one month’s time.
Cancelling the May Fair would be self-inflicted wound on Ludlow. The town council didn’t understand the rules and it seems that none of the councillors had looked them up on gov.uk. It’s an easy google search.
There are thousands of people in this town that do not go to festivals or formal events. But the May Fair is in their DNA. It’s in the town’s DNA. It is one of the reasons that Ludlow is Ludlow. I hope the council sees sense very quickly.