The money and politics behind the Notting Hill Carnival


  • Notting Hill Carnival has new organiser after criticism
  • Complaints over lack of governance
  • Council agrees to an audit to improve transparency

At the Tabernacle community centre, feathers and sequins are being attached to costumes, a steel band is having a last-minute rehearsal and volunteers are printing off maps ahead of this weekend’s Notting Hill Carnival.

About a million people are expected to visit west London for the carnival this year, making it one of the biggest street festivals in the world.

But behind the scenes, the mostly volunteer-managed event has struggled with its finances, governance and safety, with a steep rise in arrests for violent crime since 2010 and collapsing safety barriers and four near-fatal stabbings in 2016.

“The carnival has lasted over 50 years because of the major efforts of the people who put it on,” said Gus John, a veteran academic and campaigner. “The failure is that those who create the carnival have not been able to organise themselves financially, commercially and politically.”

Shortcomings over accounts

Earlier this year, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea ended its financial support for the London Notting Hill Carnival Trust (LNHCT), which had organised the event since 2012 under the leadership of Pepe Francis, the 75-year-old president of the British Association of Steelbands.

The council said there had been complaints of “shortcomings” in its communications. It said “crucial” operational details had only been communicated the day before last year’s event, the distribution of passes to performers was “chaotic” and that “there was an inability to contact key LNHCT members” both in advance and over the weekend.

There has also been criticism of LNHCT’s rudimentary accounts, which simply showed cash reserves of £51,202 in 2017. RBKC said the new organisers of the event should offer “filing of full accounts” in future.

Costume makers prepare outfits for the Notting Hill Carnival at the Tabernacle community centre in west London © Tolga Akmen/FT

Meanwhile, performers at the carnival complained at LNHCT’s failure to sign a sponsorship deal that could help to pay the bands and dance teams who take part. The carnival has not had a headline sponsor since Coca-Cola’s Lilt brand signed a four-year deal in the mid-1990s. Mr Francis said sponsors had been deterred by the heavy policing of the event.

Despite its name, the London Notting Hill Carnival Trust was also not a registered charity and potentially missed out on tax benefits as a result, the Caribbean music magazine Soca News revealed in March. Mr Francis said he did not know why LNHCT was set up as a limited company instead. “This sort of thing was done by accountants and lawyers,” he said.

“There were a lot of problems with LNHCT,” admitted Mr Francis. “We had a shoestring budget and we were volunteers doing jobs that should have been done by staff.”

He said he supported the appointment of this year’s organiser, Carnival Village Trust, an arts agency that runs two venues in west London, including the Tabernacle.

Former finance director stole £800,000

CVT said it has received total grants of £175,000 from RBKC to run this year’s event, as well as £650,000 from the Greater London Authority to pay and train carnival stewards, and a further £50,000 from Westminster council. To boost safety, knife-detecting arches will be installed for the first time.

CVT itself has struggled in the past with its financial controls. A 2013 report from RBKC noted “ongoing concerns in relation to the governance, structure and financial management within Carnival Village Trust”. It said that after asking for a “refreshed business plan” these issues had “improved”.

But between 2014 and 2016, CVT’s former finance director, Nadia Chase Ali, made 530 transfers into her own bank account totalling nearly £800,000, disguising them as payments to carnival suppliers and others. She was sentenced to six years in prison in July.

Matthew Phillip, head of the Carnival Village Trust, said internal controls have been strengthened © Tolga Akmen/FT

Matthew Phillip, the 46-year-old head of CVT and leader of the Mangrove Steel Band, who said he had been working all hours in the days leading up to the first carnival under his control, said internal controls have been strengthened and all outgoing payments are now signed off by senior managers.

An email from RBKC’s head of fraud, Andrew Hyatt, produced by the PR team for the carnival, said his team was “very impressed with the range of controls that had been introduced”.

Goal of £1m in sponsorship

Mr Phillip said he hoped to sell about £1m of sponsorship “so we can get something back for the performers and the local community”.

Gerard Williams, one of the team at the Tabernacle, who was preparing outfits for masquerade dancers, said: “We don’t get paid and we spend all year raising money for the carnival performance. We’re really careful about things like making sure we can recycle beads used in one year’s costumes for the next year.”

Selling licences to street stalls generated more than £250,000 last year for the council, but RBKC said the cost of cleaning up the event was £218,129 and that staff costs were more than £200,000, though no council staff work on the event full-time. The Arts Council said it had provided £154,175 in grants to carnival artists and organisations this year.

Transfer has been ‘too fast’

The council has come under pressure from the activist group Reclaim our Carnival, which objects to the choice of CVT and has pressed for a full audit of the council’s costs and spending. RBKC has agreed to the audit, which is under way.

An RBKC spokesperson said: “We aim to be transparent in the way carnival funding is allocated — for example this year we are introducing a Grant Advisory Board to help local people and groups have more of a say in the grant allocation process.”

Michael La Rose, of Reclaim our Carnival, said: “There was a long period when carnival was financially independent and generated its own money.”

CVT was one of just two parties to bid for the £175,000 RBKC grant this year, with the other bid from calypso star Giselle Carter, who incorporated her bidding vehicle the month that expressions of interest were due.

The Notting Hill Carnival has been a popular London event for more than 50 years © PA

Mr John said the transfer from LNHCT to CVT has been too fast. “It has massively pitted members of the carnival community against each other,” he said. Reclaim our Carnival, he argued, were “working towards bringing as many bands and masquerade makers together and have them determine one agreed entity to run the carnival that would run it well, taking advice from commercial and financial experts of course”.

“Notting Hill as an art form is amazing but it lacks proper, professional management,” said Chris Boothman, a former head of legal services at the Council for Racial Equality who co-directed the carnival until 2011. “An event of this size should be professionally managed but the governance of the event has let it down.”


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