UK 'Brexit festival' cost £120m as audit office scrutinises project

The event has faced criticism after visitor numbers were questioned by MPs

The See Monster art installation was one of the Unboxed projects. Photo: PA Media
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The UK's 'Brexit festival' has cost the taxpayer £120 million ($144 million) while delivering unknown financial benefits after an extended deadline was set to meet benchmarks under projections made by government officials.

The Unboxed series of art events held across the country this year was investigated by the National Audit Office (NAO) after concerns were raised by parliamentarians it had only attracted 2.8 million live visitors to events.

On Thursday, the NAO released its report into the event and revealed that by November 2022, 18.1 million people had engaged with the festival overall -- a figure made up of 2.8 million attending live events, 13.6 million engaged with the festival’s broadcast and digital content, plus 1.7 million children and families taking part in festival learning activities

The planning for the festival estimated that 23 million people would engage with the festival with a worst-case scenario of eight million people and a best-case scenario of 64 million.

"The festival is forecast to cost just under the full budget of £120 million," the NAO said. "In its full business case, [Department for Culture, Media and Sport] estimated the financial benefits of the festival at £170 million, with a best-case scenario of £493 million and a worst-case scenario of £40 million.

"Although these figures included the benefits arising from tourism and volunteering, they also depended heavily on DCMS modelling of audience engagement."

“DCMS modelled levels of audience engagement using data on public participation and willingness to pay for previous events which were comparable to the festival’s projects. Based on these, it valued the benefit of physical engagement with an event at £16.38 per person and digital engagement at £2.12 and applied these values to its modelled levels for audience engagement for each of the 10 projects.

“As a result, DCMS’s analysis gave an overall positive net present value for the central and best-case scenario, and a negative net present value for the worst-case scenario.

A further report has been order to assess whether the event was value for money and is due to be published in March 2023.

The NAO is calling for lessons to be learnt from how projects have performed against their targets.

“Our work does not draw a value for money conclusion on the festival as that would require the results of the planned evaluation to be available. Based solely on the facts set out in this report we have identified three areas that should be covered by the planned evaluation, although these should not be considered exhaustive,” it concluded.

“We consider it important for public transparency and visibility that this evaluation should be published and should include information to allow DCMS and Festival 2022 Ltd to fully understand the volume and nature of participation for each project alongside the final cost of each.

“This analysis could then be used in conjunction with the identification of other financial benefits and those benefits which are difficult to quantify, to provide a fuller picture of each project’s value for money.

“[It should] identify lessons for the future from the experience of how projects have performed against their targets, including on cost and attendance, and the split between physical and digital/broadcast audiences; and identify lessons for the future about the importance of agreeing clear objectives and then setting performance targets early enough in any similar future programme’s life cycle.”

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

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.

In October, 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.

Updated: December 02, 2022, 12:52 PM