Inquiry into £120m UK 'Brexit festival' after it falls short of 66m visitor target

Organiser defends 'successful' Unboxed event despite it attracting only 2.8m visitors to live events

The See Monster art installation was part of a £120m creativity project, called Unboxed, which has been touring the UK. PA
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An investigation has been launched into the UK's £120 million 'Festival of Brexit', which has fallen well short of its 66 million visitor target, attracting only 2.8 million people to live events.

Unboxed, a government programme of live and digital events funded by taxpayers’ money, was held across 107 towns and villages throughout the UK.

Its director, Phil Batty, said a total of 18 million people took part in events online and in-person which were held from March to October — the majority participated digitally, by watching online broadcasts or through virtual reality.

He defended the project, which aimed to attract 66 million people, claiming it had been "very successful".

However, the National Audit Office (NAO) is investigating the cost of the scheme following a referral from the government's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

Mr Batty claims the project has provided “cultural experiences” to people across the UK and said the 66 million target was never intended to comprise in-person visitors.

“These cultural experiences have showcased the very best of science, the very best of tech and the very best of the arts through live and through digital," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“66 million was never a visitor target for this programme. It was a creative ambition for the programme, it was an ambition because we wanted to be really inclusive for the whole of the UK and I think we’ve delivered that.

“I believe it has been very successful because we’ve seen that whether there has been live events in towns and villages there’s been an economic boost, but also we’ve seen major free cultural projects provided to millions of people right across the UK, and that’s hugely important.”

The project, which included a decommissioned oil rig transformed into an art installation called See Monster, was intended to evoke the spirit of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the 1951 Festival of Britain but by August it reportedly had received only 238,000 visitors.

Last month, a cross-party parliamentary committee asked the NAO to investigate how the project was managed to “help get to the bottom of how so much taxpayers' money could be frittered away for so little return”.

The series of events was originally unveiled in 2018 as Festival UK 2022 by then prime minister Theresa May and was due to be a nationwide celebration of creativity after the UK’s departure from the European Union.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who later held the government post of Brexit secretary, nicknamed it the Festival of Brexit but it was rebranded as Unboxed under Boris Johnson’s leadership.

Julian Knight, chairman of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, referred the scheme to the NAO.

"Despite a 'stretch target' of 66 million, the population of the UK, Unboxed had reached 238,000 people by 31 August — slightly less than the population of Derby," he wrote on the Politics Home website.

"It did this at the cost of £120m of taxpayer money. For reference, the platinum jubilee, which reached four times that number, cost £28m.

"If we take the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport figures ... at face value, Unboxed at that point cost about £500 a visitor.

"By trying to do too much, Unboxed achieved too little. Many of the installations were wonderful — a light show on the history of the universe, art with your eyes closed, a 10km model of the solar system. The problem was the events had no coherent purpose threading them together. As a result, the shows were baubles without a founding purpose and the public clearly found it hard to care.

"During a cost-of-living crisis, £120m cannot be thrown away without questions being asked. That’s why the DCMS Committee wrote to the National Audit Office to ask for an urgent investigation into what Unboxed got so wrong. The British cultural industry is a national gem, essential for our self-image and soft power abroad. I hope this investigation makes sure such potential won’t be wasted again."

The spending watchdog is investigating whether the eight-month festival provided value for money.

Updated: November 22, 2022, 2:49 PM