Blog: £116m Brexit festival saw just a fraction of visitors and income predicted – The Guardian

At a cost of £116.8m to the taxpayer, the Unboxed science and arts festival was supposed to bring the UK together in a post-Brexit love-fest and enhance our international reputation – to “showcase what makes our country great today”.

The final evaluation, however, has found that the festival, commissioned by Theresa May in 2018 and christened a “festival of Brexit” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, brought together a fraction of the audiences hoped for and generated a fraction of the financial benefit that was predicted.

From March to December 2022, 10 Unboxed commissions ran in 107 locations around the UK. In commissioning the events, emphasis was placed on live, highly accessible events that would reach a wide range of individuals and communities. Digital and broadcast activities were also prioritised.

Ministers predicted that the UK economy would enjoy a £170m windfall as a result of the festival. In fact, the evaluation discovered, the festival brought less than £20m of additional spending across Britain.

In contrast to early prediction of 66 million visitors, it turns out that fewer than 20.5 million people engaged with one of the Unboxed activities over the eight months of the festival, either in person, digitally or through broadcasts.

“At its core, Unboxed aimed to bring people together,” the Festival 2022 Ltd evaluation said. But it findings show that just 2.74 million people went to a live event – 2 million in England, 300,000 in Northern Ireland, about 34,000 in Wales and 400,000 in Scotland.

More people engaged remotely – 15.86 million – either digitally or through broadcasts. But it has been pointed out that this number includes those watching a special edition of the BBC programme Countryfile, which included a 15-minute segment of content created by Unboxed. Countryfile has an average weekly audience of 6 million.

Education was another major plank of the festival’s raison d’etre. But just 1.73 million children, young people and family members engaged through its learning programme, the evaluation found.

Tour de Moon, a collection of moon-inspired ideas in Southampton, had just 190,109 visitors. Fewer than 61,000 of those were live interactions, with just 1,112 people participating. It had no broadcast, print or learning engagements.

PoliNations, a “magical super-garden” planted in Birmingham, attracted just 186,487 people in total, and fewer than 50,000 of those were live visits. Only 985 children engaged with the garden educationally and it received no broadcast engagement at all.

The findings echo those of a review by the National Audit Office (NAO), the spending watchdog, last December. That concluded that the festival failed to reach “public awareness” and achieve audience engagement targets.

It was the NAO who, after criticising the government’s business model, ordered that the final evaluation be made publicly available. Specifically, the watchdog pointed out that the government had claimed financial benefits of the festival without taking into consideration the costs incurred by the devolved administrations or the fact that £16.3m of VAT would be unrecoverable.

The Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee called for the NAO investigation last year after finding the festival to be an “irresponsible use of public money” and criticising its planning as a “recipe for failure”.

“That such an exorbitant amount of public cash has been spent on a so-called celebration of creativity that has barely failed to register in the public consciousness raises serious red flags about how the project has been managed from conception through to delivery,” said the Conservative MP Julian Knight, the chair of the cross-party committee.

The culture minister Stuart Andrew said: “Unboxed brought people across the UK together in a celebration of science, the arts and creativity, touching the lives of millions. I am pleased to see that this report shows the positive impact this programme had on individuals, communities and on the recovery of these important sectors from the pandemic.”

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