EXCLUSIVE: Anger as colleges call St Giles Christmas fair “tawdry” and “poor quality”

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Leading cultural venues have condemned a group of Oxford colleges after they raised objections to the city’s annual Christmas fair – despite it raising £1.8m for the local economy.

According to official City Council documents leaked to The Oxford Student, a group of “stakeholders including colleges on or near St Giles” described the funfair – popular with the children of local residents – as “tawdry”, and described the stage music as being of “extremely poor quality”.

The documents say Balliol described itself as “marooned” and like “an island in the centre of Oxford” during the event, held in November last year. The college is located on Broad Street, which according to the City Council website was only closed for seven hours during the three-day event.

An unnamed college claimed that “many of our staff were considerably inconvenienced” while another proposed “a short parade on one weekday evening” as an alternative to the festival, which last year brought around £1.8m to the local economy and was attended by 100,000 people.

The objections, among others, have led to the cancellation of the annual lantern parade and the decision to disperse this year’s festival around the city rather than keep the focus on St Giles.

Cultural venues expressed their disappointment at this move. Jeremy Spafford, Director of Arts at the Old Fire Station, said staff at the centre were “very disappointed” and that this year’s festival would be a “diminished version”.

“My understanding is that the main objections to the Christmas Light Festival came from colleges which did not like the disruption,” he said.

“I am disappointed that those that raised objections were unable to see the value of bringing thousands of members of the public who would not normally visit cultural venues into the city centre for what was a joyous celebration of the City and its cultural heritage.”

“We know that the various venues and the university museums had fantastic footfall and this could not be achieved without a significant centrepiece event in St Giles and without the pull of the lantern parade which brought children from Blackbird Leys, Wood Farm, Barton and Rose Hill into the event with their families.”

Students also raised concerns over the plans during a meeting of John’s JCR, with one member pointing out that children “have a wonderful time at the Christmas fair” and that if the changes went ahead John’s would be seen as “the college that banned Christmas”.

However, other students expressed their annoyance at the disruption caused by the fair. One said the music stage was “facing her window and has been disturbing her (and a handful of others’) work during the day as well as stopping her getting to sleep at night.”

Jonathan Lloyd, CEO of Pegasus – an arts organisation specialising in youth theatre and emerging artists – said he was also “disappointed” at the decision.

“All of us at Pegasus are disappointed about the proposals to remove the lantern parade and fair from this year’s Christmas Light Festival; last year’s parade provided a fantastic focal point for the festival, involving hundreds of local schoolchildren, and attracting new audiences into the city centre’s cultural venues.”

“It created a wonderful, communal, carnival-like atmosphere in the run-up to Christmas. That would be difficult to re-create if the festival is dispersed through various venues,” he added.

Estimates made by the City Council suggest that last year’s event saw an increase in visitor numbers of up to 336% for cultural venues in the city.

Peter McQuitty, the Council’s Head of Policy, Culture and Communications, said they carried out “extensive consultation” to make this year’s event better.

“It was clear that there was concern about a three day road closure with criticism of the inconvenience caused by it and the impact that it had on the city. There was also some concern about the noise levels.”

“Therefore we have taken the decision to hold a Christmas event over three days but there will be no road closures and no event in St Giles in order to minimise disruption to residents, businesses, and people who work in the city,” he added.

Staff at St John’s and Balliol did not respond to requests for comment.