Carnival may soon be over for travelling funfairs 

Operators want to know why councils deemed them to be unsafe when the rest of the hospitality industry was allowed to reopen

Travelling funfairs have not been allowed to restart - unlike amusement parks 

The next six weeks should have been the most profitable time of the year for Lyndon Leighton. As a travelling fairground operator, the stretch from Halloween to Christmas earns him enough to see his family through the winter and pays for a holiday in the new year before he starts the business back up at Easter.

But this year, having barely worked on a fairground since March, Leighton has been forced to work odd jobs – sweeping yards, painting fences and making log burners – just to get by. 

“I was in my yard at the weekend with the equipment and I was distraught,” he says.“This time of year you usually have all of your debts paid and you get a run of bonfires and Christmas markets. But we’ve earned nothing as an industry – we’re struggling terribly.”

Funfair operators, known as travelling showmen, have fallen through the cracks of the vast majority of the Government’s emergency support schemes. As a mobile industry, showmen do not have rateable premises and were ineligible for the emergency grants that propped up thousands of small businesses.

Although they would like better financial support, it is not their biggest grievance, however. After being told by the Government that they could reopen on July 4 with the rest of the hospitality sector, the fairground industry feels aggrieved that many local councils deemed them to be “unsafe” and refused to give travelling fairs permission to restart during the summer. 

Leighton was baffled by the decision. He asks why amusement parks, indoor play centres and gyms could reopen but the majority of funfairs were regarded as “high risk”.

He managed to operate at one fair in Burnley during the August bank holiday before his next event was cancelled. He says that the Burnley fair demonstrated that fairgrounds can be Covid secure, citing measures such as hand sanitising, wiping down rides and drastically reducing capacity. “It was very down on money, but it was a living.”

It is unclear why many councils did not allow travelling fairs to reopen during the summer. When asked about the rationale behind the decisions made by councils, the Ministry for Local Government did not provide any definitive answer, but it is thought some councils had concerns regarding the amount of people attending fairs.

A spokesman for East Riding Council in Yorkshire, which allowed some fairs to take place during the summer, said recent fairs had been cancelled "on public health grounds" as there were concerns that they could contribute to a further increase in cases.

Operating fairground rides is a costly business for the self-employed operators who do so. The rides themselves can cost more than £100,000 each and showmen often take out hefty loans to finance them. On top of that, they require public liability insurance to operate, pay fees to get their rides tested annually as well as tax and insurance on their large transport vehicles. 

These costs did not disappear like magic during the crisis, says Philip Paris, president of the Travelling Showmen’s Guild. “We’re not receiving adequate funding and we’re not getting the message across that local authorities are putting these blanket bans on not allowing fairs to operate. People are genuinely facing bankruptcy and they don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” he adds. 

Paris also believes the Government neglected the concerns of fairground operators throughout the crisis. Before the summer, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden established task groups involving members of various hospitality sectors to set out a roadmap for reopening, but the Showmen’s Guild was never invited. 

Instead it was told that the Association of Circus Proprietors would represent their concerns. David Linden, an SNP MP, described the move as “asking the Boy Scouts to represent the Girl Guides”. “Their needs and ours are just different," adds Paris. 

A government spokesman said: "We meet regularly with representatives of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain to understand the impact the pandemic is having on the sector and are working flat out to help those affected. Support has included the job retention scheme, Bounce Back loan scheme and VAT reductions."

To raise awareness for the plight of the industry and push for clarity about when it can reopen, six “lady showmen” have launched a campaign called Future for Fairgrounds.

Colleen Roper, one of the groups’ members, suggests that the ban placed on fairground operators could be a result of discrimination. “Unfortunately it does seem that there is an acceptable form of prejudice and discrimination against the travelling community. If you were to discriminate against any other cultural minority, it wouldn’t be acceptable,” she says. 

Paris agrees and says fairgrounds are often not held in the same esteem as other parts of the hospitality industry and get looked down upon. “We do find that we are people in this country who are discriminated against. It’s one of the reasons the Showmen’s Guild came into being 130 years ago and it’s been raising its head quite a lot during this pandemic.”

“We feel that we’re being looked on as sort of outsiders rather than a part of the community of this country,” he adds. 

Despite little prospect of reopening anytime before Easter given the resurgence of the virus in the UK, the showmen are determined to weather the storm and hold on to their businesses – and lifestyles.

Leighton sold a vehicle he uses to transport equipment and a generator to keep his family going for now, but after 35 years in the industry he has no plans to throw in the towel. “I ain’t giving up my business. I’m sticking with it - it’s got to come around good at some point.” 

Roper is more cautious, but says being a showman is a lifestyle passed down from one generation to the next, and her family has been involved for six generations. “It’s not a job, it’s our life’s work and a lifestyle and a heritage that we’re very proud of. We do adapt and we are very resilient, but this really has put us on our knees as an industry.”