Stockton’s health troubles and its carnivals don’t appear to have much in common, but one man has been tasked with overseeing both. Local Democracy Reporter Alex Metcalfe went to see him.

"IT’S about a three letter word – fun.” Stockton’s events programme is among the most established in the region. It has SIRF (Stockton International Riverside Festival), its fireworks display and Stockton Sparkles, to name a few. It also has some of the most deprived parts of the country – with almost 20 years separating an average lifespan in its richest and poorest wards – and an increasing number of people being admitted to hospital with alcohol-related conditions. 

Cllr Jim Beall has been tasked with a new brief for dealing with all of this. And he believes “fun” can play an important role in improving lives. He says: “The overarching strategy is to make Stockton borough a desirable place to visit. With a jam-packed programme of events over the year to attract visitors and  the economic benefits they bring. But it’s also about our own residents and that simple three letter word – fun.

“What is the purpose of a council? Is it always about regulation or should a council not be working with its communities to enhance the quality of lives?”

It is clear the Labour-led council in Stockton intends to make its town centres – and Stockton in particular – “events destinations” to boost ailing footfalls in high streets. It’s something which has sparked fierce debate in the town hall but has also garnered national attention.

However, this “if you build it, they will come” method has hit some significant bumps in the road. The budget of the Globe Theatre project has spiralled and big names like M&S and Debenhams have either left or will leave the high street soon. 

But Cllr Beall tells me the idea of putting on free or affordable events in the town centre gives people access to things they might not otherwise see. “That’s part of the philosophy,” he says. “Our town centres are facing a tremendous challenge. We’re not unique in this, it’s about the changing nature of retail.

"But some years ago we made a conscious decision which has been popularised  – about repurposing town centres while still including retail.

“It’s about town centres as a place to be and enjoy. That’s how it can link to the events that we put on.”

The government’s housing, communities and local government committee put a report together in February this year which heaped praise on the council’s work in Stockton town centre. The report stated the panel was “particularly impressed”  with Stockton’s Enterprise Arcade which supports fledgling retail businesses.

And they also noted the “flexible amphitheatre-style performance space” on the high street and its “year round programme of events”. 

Opponents disagree and are growing tired and angry at the amount of money being pumped into Stockton’s High Street. Cllr Beall believes events can help to lives in a different way – through interaction and boosting emotional health. 

“It’s a word seldom-used from Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels – interconnectedness,” he says. “All these things connect up – we shouldn’t be thinking of solutions in silos. Events and the like bring people out and into spaces together – the human being is a gregarious animal and these things help people engage with each other. The biggest highlight for me in SIRF – and I’m not taking anything away from the professional acts – is the community carnival. 

“That’s about people working together for months – coming out of their homes, going into local centres and making costumes, designing and making props and proudly parading it down their high street and then a big party on the riverside afterwards. That, for me, can have as much benefit to a person’s health as a course of treatment from a doctor. 

“Improving people’s health is not just about doctors, nurses and hospitals. It’s about improving their well-being and giving people the opportunity to enjoy life and begin to have healthier lifestyles.”

Increased spending on SIRF hasn’t passed unnoticed in the past 12 months. Conservative group leader Cllr Matt Vickers put forward a motion calling for £240,000 to be taken from the summer festival and put it into the authority’s youth service earlier this year. It was voted down.

But the argument too much money goes to these events and big project still stands. Cllr Beall moves to counter this when I put it to him. He adds: “You could look at the huge amount of money which goes into adult social care and children’s services. You could say it’s small in relation to that – but again it can impact on that in a positive way. If you have people who are healthier, they are less likely to need adult social care services in later life. There are invest-to-save approaches – and quite often this money draws in additional funding from elsewhere which wouldn’t normally be available."