Mayor defends Liberty date switch


London’s mayor has been forced to defend the decision to change the date of the capital’s annual disability arts festival, and to move it from a Saturday to a Sunday.

Some disabled artists fear that the move could damage visitor numbers, particularly as this year’s event – on 26 July, rather than its traditional date in early September – will coincide with the International Paralympic Committee’s Athletics Grand Prix Final.

When Liberty was held for the first time in 2003, it was held in Trafalgar Square, before being moved eight years later to London’s South Bank.

It established itself as a vital date on the capital’s disability arts calendar, and became a tourist attraction in its own right, playing a major part in raising awareness of disability rights and boosting the profile of some of the country’s most talented disabled artists.

But for the last two years, it has merged with National Paralympic Day (NPD), and is hosted by the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

This year, as well as the athletics, Liberty will be competing for visitors’ attention with Paralympic medal-winning swimmers competing in the London Aquatics Centre, also part of NPD.

The swimmers will be competing just days after their IPC World Championships take place in Glasgow.

The athletics and swimming will be ticketed, but the other events will be free, including Liberty, and the chance to try out disability sports.

The British Paralympic Association is also planning events in at least two other cities to mark NPD.

Last year, Liberty struggled to compete with the attractions of NPD. A low-key line-up on the main stage, combined with the public interest in Britain’s Paralympians, put the arts festival even further into the shadows than in 2013 (pictured), when it merged with NPD for the first time.

Lengthy queues for autographs from London 2012 stars and medal-winning Sochi 2014 Paralympic skiers Kelly Gallagher and Jade Etherington contrasted for most of the afternoon with rows of empty seats in front of the main Liberty stage.

Dr Ju Gosling, artistic director of the disability arts, culture and human rights organisation Together! 2012, which is based in east London, said she had been frustrated by the decision to schedule Liberty on the first weekend of the school holidays, when more people – including personal assistants (PAs) and carers – leave town “than any other weekend of the year”, while PAs were always much harder to book on a Sunday.

She said Liberty had been “dumped” on “the worst day of the summer for events organisers”.

But following a meeting with the organisers of Liberty and NPD to discuss the concerns, she said they were able to “have a full and frank exchange of views”.

She said: “As a result, we hope to be able to work together to maximise local engagement, as well as to research barriers to participation that will assist with the continuing growth of the festival in future years.

“Together! 2012 remains committed to supporting the Liberty festival in east London.”

Tracey Jannaway, director of Independent Living Alternatives, the company set up by Liberty’s late founder, David Morris, was critical last year of the decision to merge Liberty with NPD, and the lack of promotion for the arts festival.

She said: “So Liberty will be shifted to July. If this is with the usual lack of publicity I’ll be surprised if anyone turns up for the arts side of the event.”

A spokesman for the mayor, Boris Johnson, said: “We are currently finalising plans for the Liberty festival, which is one of the most important showcases of disabled artists in the country and a key cultural event for the capital.

“Last year’s event in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park attracted bigger crowds than previous events in Trafalgar Square and with the improved access it offers we hope even more people, whether disabled or otherwise, will attend this year.”

He said the park was “one of the most accessible public spaces in London, with good transport links and parking available for disabled people”.

And he said that bringing together “leading artists and top sports stars is a great opportunity to celebrate and showcase talented people in two important fields”.

The spokesman said that Liberty was “a family-friendly event that offers a great free day out at the start of the holidays”, and organisers hoped there would be “sufficient notice for anyone who has personal assistance requirements to plan ahead”.

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