Big Tent Ideas Festival 2021 brings the conversation to Coventry

A photo of people gathering in the Assembly Festival Garden with a pop up banner in the foreground reading "Welcome - Big Tent Ideas Festival"


Communications Apprentice Noof Alhashemi was excited to attend the Big Tent Ideas Festival in the Assembly Festival Garden this month. Read her account of the inspiring discussions that took place across the day below. 

Saturday 10th July saw The Big Tent set up camp in Coventry’s Assembly Festival Garden. The garden welcomed over 600 visionaries from across the UK, who had made their way to Coventry to discuss the big questions facing the country today.

Founded in 2017, the Big Tent Ideas Festival is, at its core, a space for people to come together, put their political party badge to one side, and discuss ideas, question current policies and suggest alternatives to those who can take their concerns to the policy-makers themselves. It also provides a space for like-minded individuals to network and engage in non-partisan politics. With politicians and decision-makers sometimes seeming unreachable, Big Tent aims to bring together everyone who cares about the state of society, including both current and aspiring leaders.

Coventry’s Assembly Festival Garden boasts three unique event venues; Queen of Flanders, Third Space and Piccolo, all of which were in use throughout the day, with constant livestreaming capturing the talks for audiences at home.

Mic stands positioned near the panellists were an open invitation to audience members to come forward and ask questions. A QR code for the polling and Q&A platform Slido were also in use, allowing people to submit questions anonymously and enabling those watching from home to have their say.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival this year covered four themes; Green Growth - exploring ways to make the economy greener and the run-up to COP26; Healthy Growth - the future of the health service and keeping Britain healthy;Creative and Inclusive Growth - ways we can build on local culture and the arts, with a City of Culture focus; and Global Connectivity - Growing Together - what the pandemic has taught us and the UK’s position globally.

The day commenced with a welcome speech by Big Tent Foundation founder George Freeman MP, Penny Mordaunt MP, BBC TV and radio journalist Trish Adudu, and Martin Sutherland, CEO of Coventry City of Culture Trust.

Following the introductory speech, Queen of Flanders hosted the heavy conversation topic of Conflict & Global Britain. The discussion was held in partnership with The Halo Trust, a British charity which restores and protects the lives of people in countries post-conflict, by clearing landmines and war debris.  As explained by Chris Loughran – Senior Policy and Advocacy Advisor for The Halo Trust – in a promotional video, the discussion was “looking at the economic, political and humanitarian consequences of modern conflict, and what role Global Britain can play”. 

With Sally Lockwood, Sky News Correspondent, as chair of the panel, all speakers took turns to pitch thoughts on topical global issues, starting with Chris Loughran, who explained how The Halo Trust can be involved in future conversations around Britain's conflict strategy. Mandy Turner, Professor of Conflict, Peace and Humanitarian Affairs at the University of Manchester, shared her insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, having worked extensively in the Middle East.

Shabnam Nasimi, Executive Director of Conservative Friends of Afghanistan, tackled Britain’s withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, marking the end of the UK's lengthy military presence in the country. Fabian Hamilton MP, Shadow Minister for Peace and Disarmament and MP for Leeds North East, reflected on past UK efforts in global intervention, and received probing questions from several passionate audience members. Like many of the guest speakers, he expressed his respect and admiration for what the Big Tent does:

“That’s why I think this event is so good, and I heard George Freeman say that earlier; that we’re trying to get rid of the party labels and talk about what is best for humanity across all different political views. We’ve got one aim in mind, to make this world a better place, our society a better place, our cities and our countries a better place”.


C is for Coventry, Creativity & Culture, provided an informative and entertaining variety showcase of speakers and performances, beginning with Josh Leach, who talked about the importance of creating spaces in the city where people want to socialise and gather to exchange ideas and opinions. He suggested the easiest way to elevate a space is to add colour, as exemplified in Hertford Street in the City Centre. “In the same way that bright flowers attract bees, colourful cities attract people,” he said.

As one of the 15 people selected for Coventry City of Culture Trust’s leadership programme, Josh also shared his thoughts on what it means to be a leader; “Anyone can be a leader, because leadership is situational. A leader is the person who at the right time, has the right quality or action that allows the group to move forward.”

The showcase also featured spoken word poems, music and breakdancing and finished with a laid-back, open, three-way discussion about legacy and where cultural leadership can take us.

A huge focus for Coventry City of Culture Trust is establishing long-lasting positive economic and social change for Coventry. 

A lot of this comes from building bridges, and creating opportunities for members of all communities, but also, with Coventry being one the UK’s youngest cities, ensuring that we nurture and elevate the generation of tomorrow.

Piccolo space hosted: “The Power of Community in Raising Youth Mental Health” with representatives from Grapevine (a charity supporting and empowering local communities), Politika (a non-profit organisation which supports young people to get involved with politics) and House of Rainbow (An organisation which provides support to Black LGBTQ individuals).

One of the final discussions of the day in Third Space was “A Safer Society: Guiding Young People Away from Violence” which explored concerns around reduced youth services and diminishing spaces for young people to socialise, as well as touching on the negative perception of youth gatherings as ‘gangs’.

Rashid Bhayat, the founder and CEO of Positive Youth Foundation, a charity which works with young people in Coventry, voiced his optimism for City of Culture “We are the City of Culture… Opportunities will come to this city... and we have to make sure they don’t just pass us by. For the young people who need it the very most will be there to benefit and then to influence what happens beyond that, because the legacy of that work is going to be just as important to make sure that all of our kids in this city, have the best possible life chances… Give young people the chance, and prepare to be amazed”.

The conversation also had critical input from Mark Payne, Assistant Chief Constable for local policing with West Midlands Police; Liz Gaulton, Director of Public Health; and Tyler Campbell – founder of the youth group Fridays, which hosts weekly events (both entertainment and educational) for young people in the city.  The heart and the experience this panel had for the subject matter shone through, as they reflected on the old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ in the context of youth services in Coventry.

All in all, there were 17 discussions which took place throughout the day. For those who missed out, or who would like to rewatch, all the livestreams can now be found on our event page here, as well as on the Big Tent Ideas Festival’s YouTube Channel.

As the event drew to a close and signs were taken down, the bench umbrellas went up, and the sun seemed determined to stay out and provide visitors with a long-awaited Saturday night out.

Big Tent Coventry 2021 may not have given us a crystal ball vision of what’s to come in the country’s future, but it certainly showed us how many are standing shoulder to shoulder, asking the same questions (two metres apart).

All photographs by Rahil Ahmad of