Thank you Madam Chairman, 

The Labour Group have raised this issue because it is entirely about the county council’s priorities, and in this case, the wrong ones.  It is also about unequal treatment.

They say that those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.  Those of us who have followed the county council over the past 15 years will find this a familiar issue.  Rather like “Groundhog Day”, except that the sums of money concerned keeps growing ever larger.

Since 2001, nearly 4 and a half million pounds have gone from county council funds into the theatre.

We know by the end of 2010, over 2 and a half million pounds had already been put in, and the Theatre had been receiving over two hundred thousand pounds in subsidy annually, this was finally reduced to eighty thousand pounds a year in April 2011, and last year was supposedly the final year for any grant at all.

This. I clearly need to remind at least some councillors, is a theatre the county council doesn’t own, and has virtually no influence over.  So, comparisons with other, council-run owned facilities elsewhere in the county would be false.

Every time we look at this, people tell our leaders it’s too much and not fair on the entire county.  And yet it never stops.

Every time there is a protest and the council leadership reduces the subsidy given grudgingly because they know it is indefensible to the wider West Sussex electorate, they find another way to give it all back to the Festival Theatre and more besides.  On this occasion, the Kick Start money being the equivalent of giving the Festival Theatre its most recent annual grant for a further 19 years.

This is in the face of Sure Start cuts, the county youth services decimated, millions cut from adult social services, cuts which will impact on the resilience of our Fire and Rescue Service, constant reductions in staffing losing valuable expertise and service provision being reduced or diluted.  As bus services are slashed and many residents have to continue to put up with the potholes in our roads.

All done with ruthlessness, even a “gung ho” attitude by this current Tory leadership.

“We’re all in it together”, they try and tell us, echoing the Tory-led Government as it slashes our annual income as a council, “everything must be pared to the bone”.

And how are we “all in it together” in West Sussex?  What is one of the priorities of this Tory administration in the past year, therefore?  Naturally it is one and a half million pounds to refurbish Chichester Festival Theatre.

Suddenly hardened Thatcherites become all misty-eyed, put down the hatchet momentarily, and start preaching to the rest of us about the wonderful social value of this facility.

I really don’t want to denigrate what good work the theatre may actually do, but what about the wonderful social value of everything else we’ve lost and we’re losing?

It raises questions as to how this council’s Kick Start fund was used; 3% of the total fund being spent entirely on the Festival Theatre.

We believe that this fund should have been used for what it was set aside for: triggering economic activity in the county.  Its use in this way is therefore an inappropriate use of the fund – it’s rightly used for broadband delivery across the county, or High Street improvements in towns such as Horsham, Bognor Regis or Worthing –  that’s the sort of thing rejuvenating retail and industry and growing our county’s economy.

If Kick Start is there to stimulate economic growth, and the Festival Theatre was chosen on that basis, it is terrible value for money.

Where is evidence that it rakes in money for the county?  The Theatre doesn’t even make enough money clearly to cover its own costs.

The case that it brings tourism receipts to the area is very difficult to quantify and has never, I believe, been as significant as some would hope.  In many – perhaps most – cases outside visitors will come to the Theatre, see their production and leave virtually as soon as it’s finished.

It shows the favour shown towards Chichester, with the other districts and boroughs almost treated as peripheral.  This isn’t news to most of us, but it is something that needs to be challenged every time it manifests itself, and this is one of those times.

I am also pretty sure despite its prestigious reputation if it were geographically based anywhere else, it wouldn’t have received a penny, and I think that is borne out by the simple position that no other West Sussex theatre ever has.

We have a worrying situation where this county council behaves as if it is the local District Council, with investment in leisure and culture that is at its tier of responsibility and the Festival Theatre is its directly provided theatre.

It isn’t, and it’s not.

It is entirely unfair that taxpayers have to continually pay money for something that is not of benefit to whole county, but presented as if it is.  This is one theatre in a corner of the county.  To the vast majority of the residents I represent in Crawley, this is of absolutely no benefit to them.

I don’t even believe that most residents in the Chichester area would see it as a good priority for this money.  Do they want their services run for their children at the highest quality. do they want elderly and vulnerable adults social care to suffer before money is taken from this?  Of course they don’t.  As Don’t Cut Us Out expressed it in their “dossier of shame”: “So councillors put the arts in front of the elderly and disabled”.

It is subsidising the interests and recreation of a narrow section of people living in West Sussex.

This is money not going towards frontline services, not going towards important capital expenditure on things this council actually owns and has an obligation to keep in good repair.

In the area I represent, I have a situation where there are walls owned by the county hanging off the side of hills, the main roads in a state, I wish they were being given the budget for a refurbishment.

District and Borough councils are being expected to pay towards assets in their areas that the county council owns to improve them, as “partners”.  I wonder how the district and boroughs feel when they learn they are forking out hundreds of thousands of pounds of money they could be spending on their own areas of responsibility, when West Sussex has plenty to spend on things like this? 

There is an argument about fairness as well.  I would say that the Festival Theatre should not be treated with such favouritism above all the other public theatres.  I’m not even arguing especially for the Hawth, I know there are other theatres across county, not as well supported as Crawley’s theatre, crying out for a tiny fraction of the love and support the Festival Theatre gets, who don’t even get this from their own district councils.

And this, Chairman, is what this resolution is all about.  As ordinary councillors we’ve learnt from bitter experience that we can’t stop the Conservative Cabinet finding new ways to subsidise the theatre, but the well must surely now have run very dry?

How can it be justified when the county faces such financial pressures from the huge cut in revenue grant by the Tory-led government?

It can’t, but how can we as councillors have any confidence that this really is it?  That is what the county said several years ago.

We need a commitment for our taxpayers but also sadly we need a safeguard because the last moratorium lasted no time at all.

I ask today – rather more in hope than expectation – that this council will vote for this resolution, and we will get a promise there will be no further funds whatsoever released, without a thorough consultation with all county councillors.  Nothing less would be doing our residents justice.

CllrMichaelJones.jpgCllr Michael Jones

Southgate Crawley Central

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