‘Come along and have your say!’: York hosts ‘Big Tent’ ideas festival

(This article was published by York Press)

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Photograph: @stolenoranges

This article first appeared in The York Press

IT’s not often you get a chance to bend a Government minister’s ear.

But those heading along to the Big Tent Festival in Dean’s Park today might get the chance to do just that.

Among the big names taking part in the festival – a cross -party affair bringing together politicians and business and community leaders from across the political divide to debate the big isues of the day – is science, innovation and technology minister George Freeman.

And he’s particularly taken with one aspect of the festival – the Speaker’s Corner, where anyone can come along and have their say.

It is a way to try to encourage people from outside traditional politics to get involved. And it is, he stresses, one of the best bits of the whole festival – so he will be listening in.

There aren’t many places, he said, when you can just turn up and have a minister listening to you. “So come along, pick up the mic, and have your say!”

Big Tent is an annual festival held every year in a different part of the UK.

It was initially set up by Mr Freeman and others in 2017, as a counter to the increasingly fractious and divise nature of politics following the Brexit referendum.

That was most horribly demonstrated in the murder of Jo Cox, Mr Freeman said.

Big Tent is an attempt to do a different kind of politics  – one that welcomes differences of opinion and ideas, and isn’t constrained by party-political bickering.

The theme of this year’s event – which runs all day today at Dean’s Park following a summit of political leaders from around the country yesterday – is Regeneration.

Topics being discussed and debated tin tents in the grounds of Dean’s Park include:

  • Reimagining York’s future in 2040
  • Land and why it matters
  • How communities can reshape their own futures
  • Health and Wealth
  • Poverty and the cost of living
  • Climate resilience
  • How can we revive our flagging high streets

Labour MP and shadow immigration minister Syephen Kinnock said one of the beauties of Big Tent was that it allowed more out-of-the box thinking that often wasn’t possible given the fractious nature of political debate today.

Politics is often so obsessed with the short-term, and so ‘siloed’, he said.

Big Tent aims to bring together politicians of all persuasions with businesses, community representatives, academics and ‘outriders’ in a way that allows for more innovative and long-term thinking.

Big Tent chief executive Ben Rich said one of the issues that came out of the leader’s summit yesterday were the proposals for the regeneration of Coney Street.

That was a classic example of finding a new approach to an intractable problem, he said.

The proposals had been made possible because the Helmsley Group had been able to buy the lease on many of the properties along the riverside behind Coney Street.

At stroke, that meant there was a local developer with an interest in and understanding of the city who could mastermind a scheme.

Too often absentee landlords based in the United States or Far East own properties in UK cities – and have no idea what to do with them. “They have no idea – or they don’t care enough!” Mr Rich said.

The ideaa of a local developer buying up such properties to be able to put forward a meaningful sceme was one that attracted huge interest at the leader’s summit, Mr Rich said – and was one of the reasons why it was so important that Big Tent was hbeld in a different location each year, so that ideas could be shared and spread.

Another key feature of ‘Big Tent’ is the ‘Pitch Pit’ – a version of ‘Dragon’s Den’ where would-be local entrepreneurs can come along and pitch to a panel of ‘angel’ investors for a cash injection.

The hope is that several local entrepreneurs might get a leg-up tioday. But the idea goes beyond that, Mr Freeman said.

We have somehow lost the Victorian idea of local entrepreneurs investing in their local communities, he said.

“We hope the ‘pitch pit’ will act as a catalyst to create a more active network of potential local investors.”

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