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The best festive celebrations bring together communities and boost the local economy. Mark Smulian looks at some su...
The best festive celebrations bring together communities and boost the local economy. Mark Smulian looks at some success stories

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat and so very probably are local retailers, publicans, entertainers, coach drivers and purveyors of novelty Santa suits, with a little help from their local council.

The festive season can give a huge boost to local economies and civic events can promote community cohesion, but not if a council just sticks up a Christmas tree and hopes for the best. Councils with successful Christmas programmes spend months on preparation - dealing with everything from who should star in the pantomime to where to park several hundred coaches.

1 A gift from Germany

Any council would welcome an investment that delivers a staggering return of 2122%, but that is what Lincoln believes its local economy gets from the German Christmas market, now in its 25th year. It costs Lincoln City Council£450,000 to stage and draws some£10m into the local economy, says council event team leader Louise Robinson.

The event began as a small-scale visit by traders from Lincoln's twin Neustadt an der Weinstrasse and has grown every year. It now fills the historic quarter of cobbled streets around the city's cathedral with some 350 stalls selling gifts and produce, staffed by stallholders in Victorian costume.

The logistics are complex. 'There are road closures because we have up to 180,000 people here in three and a half days. Of those 50,000 arrive in 950 coaches, plus some 8,500 private cars,' says Ms Robinson. 'All coaches must be pre-booked for departures, to ensure that operators can collect people at designated times. The coaches spend the day in peripheral car parks and need police escorts to reach pick-up points. It is a very rigorous operation.'

A park-and-ride system is provided for the market, with 20 double-decker buses ferrying customers. The aftermath requires 'a very robust street cleansing operation with litter collectors and skips, but people are always amazed how clean the place is the day after the market ends', says Ms Robinson.

The council is choosy about who sells what and sifts some 2,000 applications to get stalls that 'are the kind of thing we want and will add to the character'. There are 17 coming this year from Germany.

Ms Robinson says: 'We estimate£10m is injected into the local economy directly and indirectly.'

2 Put it on ice

A 450m2 ice rink forms the centrepiece of Exeter's Christmas programme this year, backed up by lights, carols and gift markets. Late-night shopping and skating can be combined for all ages, with various entertainments providing a backdrop.

Festivities began with a switch-on of Christmas lights by TV presenter Noel Edmonds on 16 November and late shopping nights started with a visit from cartoon character Shrek.

Exeter City Council's head of tourism, Richard Ball, says a number of local organisations are involved. He explains: 'We found everyone did theirown thing in the past and we've learned in recent years that if you bring together the whole package, by persuading people in the community to pool their resources, everyone gets a much better result.'

Planning starts in April. 'There are three different retailer groupings for different areas and we also involve the museum, theatre, galleries, arts centre and the main bus operator Stagecoach, so we can ensure that the buses are running when there is early evening and late special opening of shops,' says Mr Ball.

Many retailers report that they take 40% of the annual income in the run-up to Christmas, a huge slice of the local economy.

3 Oh yes they did

The quality of the annual pantomime can make or break the reputation of a council's theatre, since it is usually the year's largest draw. Council-owned theatres, such as Hull New Theatre, take pantomime seriously.

Brian Hayton, director of cultural services at Kingston upon Hull City Council, says the venue last year played host to 47,000 people, almost half of them children, for a production of Dick Whittington and he expects similar full houses every night this season to see the Chuckle Brothers in Cinderella.

He says: 'For a council that says that every child matters, to provide an event when 20,000 children can go to the theatre in a family context is a victory in terms of the experience children have of enjoying themselves in the company of adults.

'It is also important for community cohesion because panto scripts are adapted to have local content. We have Hull people in a Hull venue enjoying Hull-based jokes and it is a major part of the city.'

Hull uses the theatrical agency Qdos to provide its pantomime. It went to the market with a specification of dates, performances and the type of performers needed, drawn up by the council's central procurement team, and chose from Qdos's roster of performers on both price and quality.

4 Great expectations

Author Charles Dickens spent the first and last years of his life in the Kent town of Rochester, which provides Medway Council with an excuse to hold Dickensian festivals in the summer and at Christmas.

The latter has street entertainment, daily parades, carols, a ball, a Christmas market and a guaranteed seasonal ambience courtesy of a snow-making machine. As at Lincoln, large temporary car parks and a free park-and-ride are needed for thousands of visitors.

'The Christmas festival is something that interests people in Rochester and we even have visitors coming over from the continent. The high street, with the cathedral and castle, is a wonderful setting on which to build it,' says cabinet member for strategic planning and economic growth Jane Chitty (Con).

It is not all frivolity though. 'We take economic growth very seriously and the high street businesses work very hard to maximise the opportunities,' adds Ms Chitty. She says the festival is not designed to compete for custom with the Bluewater shopping complex a few miles away, but supports the council's efforts to keep Rochester and neighbouring Chatham in the public eye.

'Tourism is very important to our economic future and regeneration.'

5 Let there be lights

Illuminations can excite considerable local passions and are often something councils are only too happy to leave to parishes to sort out. Few things look more desolate than a seaside resort in winter, so Bognor Regis Town Council makes the most of its lights. Events manager Sue Holmes says the illuminations add to the atmosphere and 'hopefully will encourage shoppers to support local businesses'.

The council took over the staging of the event last year because prohibitive insurance costs meant the voluntary group that had previously run them was unable to continue. It did not want to see a long-standing local tradition lost and the£9,000 revenue cost was affordable. Some money is raised by hiring out lighting wires for advertising banners.

Find out more

Lincoln City Council Louise Robinson, event team leader.

Tel: 01522 873396 or email:

Exeter City Council Richard Ball, head of tourism.

Tel: 01392 277888 or email:

Kingston-upon-Hull City Council Brian Hayton, director of cultural services . Tel: 01482 613900 or email


Medway Council Jane Chitty, cabinet member for strategic planning and economic growth. Tel: 07814 482173 or email:

Bognor Regis Town Council Sue Holmes, events manager.

Tel: 01243 867744 or email:

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