Somerset Council has withdrawn funding for safety barriers and portable toilets for the 2024 Bridgwater Carnival as part of its budget to balance its books.

The Bridgwater Guy Fawkes Carnival is a linchpin of the town’s cultural calendar, attracting 150,000 visitors to its annual parade and iconic squibbing ceremony in the town centre.

In previous years, the carnival has funded portable toilets and security barriers along the parade’s route using a £16,000 grant from Sedgemoor District Council.

But this grant has now been removed by Somerset Council (which replaced the district council in April 2023) as part of £35m of budget cuts set at its annual budget on Tuesday (February 20).

The news has been greeted with disappointment by the carnival organisers, who have argued visitors will not be able to rely on businesses along the carnival route allowing them to use their facilities.

Chris Hocking, one of the carnival’s non-executive directors, expressed his concerns in a formal question submitted ahead of the full council meeting held in Bridgwater on Tuesday (February 20).

He said: “Many visitors to the carnival stay overnight, or longer, throughout the Somerset area boosting trade for the hospitality industry and retailers at a time of year when trade is at its lowest.

“With such a massive increase in revenue for so many Somerset businesses, we were extremely disappointed to learn that Somerset Council intends to remove, in its entirety, the very small annual grant which we previously received from the former Sedgemoor District Council.”

Bridgwater Mercury: Chris Hocking.Chris Hocking. (Image: Daniel Mumby)

Of the £16,000 that was previously provided, £9,000 was allocated to the hiring of portable toilets and £7,000 was set aside for “barrier protection for open spaces along the Bridgwater Carnival procession route”.

The carnival procession begins on the A39 Bath Road near the junction with Parkway, moves down the A38 Broadway and turns onto St. Mary Street, winding around Cornhill and terminating on Mount Street near the Northgate Yard complex.

Mr Hocking said that removing the portable toilets would leave carnival patrons relying on the goodwill of local businesses.

He said: “Without the additional portable toilets which we spread across various locations along the parade route, the general public would be obliged to seek the goodwill of public house landlords and/or restaurants for use of their facilities.

“This is not always forthcoming, and therefore the portable toilets play an important and essential role in the comfort of the vast crowd whilst ensuring that the environment is not damaged in any manner.

“Likewise, barriers play an important role in maintaining safety and comfort for our many visitors. With crowds standing ten or 12 deep in places to view the parade, the barriers maintain a safe distance between them and the massive spectacular carnival carts taking part in the parade.

“Barriers assist our marshals in delivering a very safe environment for the benefit of the public and participants.”

In addition to attracting high numbers of visitors in person, the carnival procession is live-streamed to an average of 50,000 people around the world every year.

Mr Hocking said that removing the toilets and barriers risked significant reputational damage to one of Somerset’s main tourist attractions.

He said: “Somerset is a beautiful county and we are delighted that, during our carnival season, so many thousands of people are able to see for themselves what a wonderful region this is to visit, work and live.

“It would be a great disappointment if visitors were given the impression that the local authority cared little for the safety and comfort of the community through their lack of funding for such essential equipment.

“The grant we are seeking is extremely small within the context of the council’s annual budget – yet the rewards would be high in terms of tourism and community engagement.”

Councillor Federica Smith-Roberts, portfolio holder for communities, housing and culture, said the council had to make numerous difficult decisions in order to pass a balanced budget and avoid declaring effective bankruptcy.

She said: “It is very disappointing that we are having to consider savings such as these, and especially where there has been such a long history of council support.

“We are, however, required to consider any and all options that help the council meet its statutory obligations for the most vulnerable in our communities.”

Bridgwater Town Council has taken on responsibility for the carnival clean-up and the public toilets within Blake Gardens as part of its annual budget, which has approved in early-February.

As part of the Bridgwater town deal (which has been protected as part of Somerset Council’s approved capital programme), the carnival’s current production and storage space on Carnival Way (off the A38 Bristol Road) is being given a new lease of life through a £4.25m project, of which £3m will come directly from the town deal.

The project is being carefully staged to avoid disruption to the carnival itself, with construction expected to begin after this year event concludes in November 2024.

Speaking at a drop-in event in October 2023, Mr Hocking said: “Ten of our clubs currently build on this site, and the building are currently very much in a derelict state.

“This project will enable us to redevelop the site and put up new industrial units so that carnival clubs can build in a much safer and more comfortable environment, allowing them to attract new members.”