OPINION: Why the Notting Hill Carnival must remain free

Dancers in bold costumes celebrate in the streets of London at the annual

Notting Hill Carnival

Today when I read that it has been announced that plans are under way which could mean that people have to pay to attend future Notting Hill carnivals my heart sank. No way.

Lady Victoria Borwick, Conservative MP for Kensington and Chelsea, is leading the campaign which could see people having to pay to be part of the carnival fun. Borwick and Kensington and Chelsea Council are both separately engaging with west London residents, in the area where the carnival is held, to find out what changes they would like made, including whether they would prefer the event to be held on Saturday and Sunday rather than Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday as it currently is.

The Notting Hill carnival, which has taken place annually in London for over 50 years, is without a doubt my favourite event of the year and something I look forward to months in advance. I have been going to the carnival for as long as I can remember, having been taken as a child by parents – I have fond memories of getting ready in my nice clothes and once there being lifted up by my dad to watch all the floats going by – and now enjoying it with friends. Up there with Christmas and my birthday, Notting Hill carnival is a day (or rather two days) of celebration in the year where I am able to be surrounded by the people closest to me, relax and have a great time.

A police officer joins in the fun at the Notting Hill Carnival in the 1970s

For myself and so many people Notting Hill carnival is not only an annual highlight not to be missed – I plan my summers around the carnival – but very much a crucial part of London life.

The Notting Hill carnival has great cultural and historical significance, the product of the ugliest and also best aspects of British society. In summer 1958 Notting Hill, which had a significant Caribbean community, was the centre of race riots where blacks were being targeted by white fascist organisations and subjected to brutal attacks. On the August Bank Holiday of 1958 there was a large outdoor meeting of hundreds of these racists who were determined to ‘Keep Britain White.’

A year later an Antiguan-born man, Kelso Cochrane, was killed in a racist attack in the area as he walked home one night. It was after Cochrane’s death, in 1959, that Trinidadian journalist and activist Claudia Jones decided community events could help to ease racial tensions in the area. In 1959 Jones organised the first carnival, a relatively small event in North Kensington, designed to bring everyone together and display Caribbean talent.

The rest, as they say, is history. Today the carnival attracts millions of people from around the world each year and covers a much larger area of West London.

What I love most about carnival is the mood and vibe: relaxed, happy, care-free, good times. People are at the carnival to have a good time – from the dancers who make up the floats in their amazing brightly coloured outfits to the groups of friends who have used the day to forget about work, reunite with each other, eat, drink, dance and have fun. There are no rules or regulations, there is no queueing to enter because there is no entrance – you can just stroll in and out of the party, losing yourself in the crowds. Time is irrelevant, you don’t even need to take anything with you except some loose change and your best friends.

And then there is the crowd itself – a beautiful mix of people from all the corners of the globe, each making the carnival the unique event that it is. Anyone can go to the carnival – age, race, class do not matter – in a day where everyone mingles together and London’s amazing cultural diversity is on display. To charge people to attend the carnival would ruin the very nature of the carnival by introducing an element of exclusivity to it.

To make people pay to go to the Notting Hill carnival would ruin the celebration completely for several reasons. First and foremost it would mean that those who have very little money to spare simply would not be able to attend, shut out of the festivities, in a completely unjust manner. For low-income families, if parents had to pay for themselves and all their children the event might become something they have to save up for – a financial stress – or, worse still, have to be given a miss. Again, this would be grossly unfair and also ruin the care-free and egalitarian essence of the carnival.

Then there are the logistics of having a ticketed event where millions of people are in attendance – How many tickets would be sold? Would they be sold on a first-come-first-serve basis? How much would they cost? Presumably there would have to be fenced off perimeters and queues to enter and leave. Turning the carnival into a ticketed event would not only be a logistical nightmare doomed for failure – images of people who had not managed to get tickets for Wireless festival storming the fences come to mind – but turn the event into exactly the type of over-regulated, bureaucratic process which people are looking to escape on their Bank Holiday and especially at the carnival.

Last, but certainly not least, I do not think it is exaggerating to say that if the Notting Hill Carnival becomes a ticketed event then gentrification has officially triumphed in London. Ticketing would undoubtedly move the celebration – albeit gradually or, initially, on a minor scale – towards being for the middle class. With Londoners already having to pay £10 to view the New Year’s Eve fireworks (as of last year), if the carnival also becomes a paid for event then we should be very concerned about a perceived movement towards a London which can only be fully enjoyed by those with enough money. The carnival was designed to bring people together not divide them.

Already there are signs of tighter restrictions being placed on the carnival, with the music finishing earlier for the past few years and a heavy police presence, with crowds being channelled in certain directions by officers. These changes have largely been accepted as necessary – since the tremendous growth in size of the carnival over the decades – to ensure the event runs smoothly and people are kept safe. Making the carnival a ticketed event, however, is a step too far and should be opposed.

The cost of the carnival, particularly policing the event and hiring the necessary stewards, which currently the council spends approximately £500,000 on, is being given as one argument for charging attendees. However, MP Borwick is certainly not in a position to make a financial argument given that earlier in the year she was under scrutiny for being a “triple dipper.” Ms Borwick has been adding substantially to her main Parliamentary salary by claiming almost £30,000 a year in expenses (public money) from her two other roles, which include being a member of the London Assembly. My point is this: there is plenty of money being wasted which is where the cuts need to be made rather than on funding an event treasured by Londoners.

The best things in life are free and Notting Hill Carnival is one of them. Let’s make sure it stays that way.