A public spending watchdog is set to investigate the UK Government’s “festival of Brexit” following concerns that visitor numbers were less than 1% of early targets.
The £120m project will be probed by the National Audit Office (NAO) after a cross-party parliamentary committee asked the watchdog to “help get to the bottom of how so much taxpayer money could be frittered away for so little return”.
In August, the festival, which organisers say is supposed to evoke the spirit of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the 1951 Festival of Britain, had received 238,000 visitors compared with organisers’ initial “stretch target” of 66 million, according to reporting by Politics Home.
The event organisers say these figures “misrepresent the public engagement” and reflect attendance at only eight of 107 physical locations within the programme.
Named Unboxed: Creativity in the UK, the event has been running throughout the year and is billed as a “celebration of creativity across all four nations of the United Kingdom”.
Originally unveiled in 2018 by Theresa May as Festival UK* 2022, the initiative was due to be a nationwide festival following the UK’s departure from the European Union.
It was previously dubbed the Festival of Brexit by MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.
However, the event was later rebranded under Boris Johnson’s premiership as Unboxed festival.
The Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) called for the investigation last month after previously finding the festival to be an “irresponsible use of public money” and criticising its planning as a “recipe for failure”.
According to the committee’s highly critical report, published in March, the event’s organisers rejected its characterisation as a festival of Brexit.
The Government and organisers said the programme has reached every part of the UK, in more than 100 towns, cities and villages, spreading work, opportunities and opening up access to culture.
Chairman of the DCMS Committee, Conservative MP Julian Knight, said: “That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery.
“The NAO’s investigation will bring welcome and thorough scrutiny and help get to the bottom of how so much taxpayer money could be frittered away for so little return.”
Calling for the investigation in September, Mr Knight said the design and delivery of the festival “has been an unadulterated shambles”, adding: “The paltry numbers attracted to the festival despite such a hefty investment highlight just what an excessive waste of money the whole project has been.”
The committee referenced the reported attendance figures when requesting the investigation.
Responding, the NAO’s comptroller and auditor general Gareth Davies has proposed a “short, focused report on Unboxed which could act as the basis for future questioning during a committee session with DCMS”.
He said the inquiry could be completed and his report published by the end of this year with the scope and exact timetable yet to be announced.
Mr Davies, in a letter to the committee’s chairman, said: “You suggested that the committee would like to know whether there have been failures of management, whether political pressures kept the project alive and whether DCMS knew that its visitor number projections were unrealistic when it responded to your committee’s report earlier this year.”
“I expect that we should be able to report on the costs and benefits associated with Unboxed, its management as a programme including accountabilities and decision-making processes, and planning work undertaken, including forecasting of visitor numbers,” he said in a letter to the committee’s chairman.
A DCMS spokesperson said: “We do not agree with the select committee’s views.
“Unboxed has helped open up access to arts and culture across the country with an inclusive and groundbreaking programme of live and digital events, designed to bring people together and delivered in partnership with the devolved nations of the UK.
“More than four million people have engaged in Unboxed programming so far and these numbers are set to rise further.”
A spokesperson for Unboxed: Creativity in the UK said: “The numbers reported misrepresent the public engagement with Unboxed and reflect attendance at only eight of the 107 physical locations within the programme.
“Unboxed’s art, science and tech commissions have been presented in over 100 towns, cities and villages, engaged millions across live and digital and employed thousands of creatives around the UK.
“The Unboxed programme continues until the end of the year.”