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STOP THE BLAME GAME

18-11-2009

Arguments over who is to blame for the cancellation of last Saturday’s Christmas lights switch on in Birmingham have rumbled on. Steve Beauchampé calls for a sense of perspective.

The wisdom of hindsight is a wonderful thing (and can be extremely beneficial if thoughtfully invoked) but I do not recall anyone in the local media, or amongst the region’s MPs, raising concerns over the plans for Birmingham’s Christmas lights switch on prior to the event. Nor am I aware that any members of the public raised such fears either with the City Council or otherwise placed them on public record before Saturday afternoon.

Apportioning blame is easy and clearly there are instances when rank organisational incompetence contributes significantly to a public occasion going wrong. Saturday’s event at Millennium Point was not such an instance. Nor was it a disaster.

True, for the sixty people who required medical treatment and particularly the four who were hospitalised, this was a distressing afternoon; for the rest of the crowd it was at best a disappointment, at worst a frightening experience.

That Martin Mullaney, BCC Cabinet Member for Leisure, Sport and Culture, has acknowledged that the Council made mistakes is laudable, though his assertion that: “we were ten minutes from another Hillsborough” was perhaps somewhat melodramatic.

Unpleasant though Saturday afternoon’s incident may have been, in the twenty years since the Hillsborough stadium disaster, crowd management techniques have improved considerably, not least in that safety almost always takes precedence over control in the minds of those charged with managing such large-scale public gatherings.

For anything approaching a major disaster to occur would have taken a long and sustained period of crushing (perhaps exacerbated by blind panic) in a confined space affording no means of escape, which was not the situation at Millennium Point.

As has been noted elsewhere, Birmingham City Council has a long and impressive track record of staging successful events, and Millennium Point itself has been used repeatedly for civic celebrations during the last six years and Saturday’s show will only been given the go ahead after meeting stringent modern safety regulations.

The difference between 2009’s Christmas Lights switch on, and previous occasions, as identified by Pete Millington (http://www.thestirrer.co.uk/questions-from-the-chaos-1611091.html) on Monday’s Stirrer, was the stellar line up assembled this year.

Likened by Millington to Glastonbury crossed with X-Factor, it brought together many of the country’s biggest pop acts (JLS, Alexandra Burke, the Sugababes, The Saturdays, Calvin Harris, Tinchy Stryder, Taio Cruz) with coachloads of fans travelling from across the country.

Quite a step up from earlier in the decade when the likes of Lily Savage, Bob the Builder and Brum the toy car (no, really!) headlined, or even more remarkable than last year, when 2007 X-Factor winner Leona Lewis topped the bill.

The show’s line up is assembled and paid for by BRMB Radio (the occasion has replaced their summer ‘Party in the Park’ event), and in many ways they should be praised for offering so many big name acts to the public free of charge.

Equally (and here’s where hindsight comes into play) between them, BRMB (who should be the real experts in such matters) the City Council (whose officers most probably are not) and West Midlands Police, clearly underestimated how many fans would turn up.

All were happy to go along with arrangements only slightly modified from last year. Yet the fact that by the time of JLS’s appearance - still four hours before the lights were due to be turned on - a crowd of over 20,000 had already assembled, in spite of the rotten weather, demonstrates that someone (or maybe several people) hadn’t done their homework properly as the attendance spiralled beyond the expectations of BRMB, the Council, police and other safety experts.

So, yes, a degree of accountability there, and also for those who broke through the barriers. Yet even here some perspective and understanding is necessary. To my knowledge, no one set out to cause injury or to force the event’s cancellation. So consider the situation, a large crowd of excitable kids, looking forward to watching many of their pop idols, probably having anticipated this for a week or more, find themselves held behind a barrier where they can just about hear - but not see - their heroes.

With no big screen to relay the event (and apparently no megaphones for police and stewards to use) many of those being denied entry to the arena could probably spy a large tract of unpopulated space immediately ahead of them and were unable (or unwilling) to understand why they couldn’t move nearer the stage.

In such circumstances, the temporary, less resilient, fencing erected at short notice after high winds damaged the original steel structure (this is not an excuse, it’s a fact), appears to have quickly given way under the pressure of those locked outside (but arguably that may have been better than having people crushed against it by the force of those pressing from behind).

And teenagers generally don’t appreciate danger in the way that overly cautious, cynical old adults do. The mind set is just different...”there’s fun going on over there, let’s get some!” versus: “that might be dangerous, we’ll stay away”. Kids see opportunities, adults see problems.

Hysteria over pop and film stars is nothing new...Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles, The Bay City Rollers, Gary Glitter, Take That, Westlife...it always was and it always will be. In this regard today’s youngsters are no more out of control than were their predecessors.

Planned developments around Millennium Point mean that the venue is unlikely to be available for future large-scale civic occasions, and with Centenary Square also undergoing significant changes which will make it an even more unsatisfactory space for major public events, a major re-think for the Christmas Lights switch on was always going to be needed.

Perhaps the Council should take the opportunity to redefine the occasion. Work with BRMB to stage a pop concert at St. Andrews, hold a more modest public switch on somewhere in the city centre (link the two via big screens), welcome back Bob, Lily or their contemporaries and encourage those who’ve been to the concert to travel back into town and enjoy the lights and the Christmas markets.

And don’t spend too much time beating themselves up over Saturday.

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