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Stage Wrong?

Stage Wrong?Speaking theatrically for a moment, we wonder if the essential difference between a pantomime and a farce is chiefly to do with wardrobe.

They otherwise both have tradition, and repetition; and both make you laugh.

Well, there's now another category of theatrical humour.

It was Item 9 of the Fylde Scrutiny Committee. (The item on Lowther Gardens Trust that had been referred to it by the Cabinet).

Like pantomime and farce, it was repetitive - because sadly, once again, what should have been an opportunity for local people to influence (and even affect) the outcome of what Fylde do, turned into what is increasingly becoming Fylde's tradition to exclude the public from hearing what they were saying.

And it made us laugh because, well, the idea of having discussions about public money spent with a charity that is running a public service, and having that meeting in secret, is absolutely farcical.

It also made us laugh because the Cabinet - still stinging from their performance over Melton Grove - actually sent this to Scrutiny to avoid accusations of secrecy and a lack of transparency.

But Scrutiny batted it straight into 'secret' mode, even though most of the financial figures about the subsidy were already openly published in the Council agenda from the week before, and the Trust's figures are published on the Charity Commission website. (For more details, see our previous article 'Curtain Up')

But so often, Fylde's ruling group seems frightened to death of having people know what they are doing - and that makes it seem like what they're doing is wrong, or at least something most folk wouldn't agree with.

We can't work out whether the matter is really a comedy or a tragedy.

There was no proper justification for having the meeting in secret of course.

But it's quite possible that someone manufactured a pretext to justify the secrecy.

For example, they might have included something in the report (quite unnecessarily) to do with someone's pay grade or salary, or conditions of employment, and the inclusion of that information provides the grounds for the whole item to be moved into secret session. If it *was* something like that, it wouldn't be the first time that sort of thing had happened at Fylde

But, (for the most part), going into secret session only happens if the Councillors want to do that. There's no obligation for them to do so.

The decision to exclude the press and public in this instance (as in most others), was entirely the decision of councillors.

It's just that officers frame the agenda for them so it looks as though they *should* go into secret session.

But one Councillor was brave enough to say he didn't want the public excluded.

Cllr Charles Duffy said he'd been through the agenda report carefully, and he could see no reason for the public to be excluded. He said he thought the Committee should let them stay and hear the debate - and in doing so he forced a vote on whether the public should be excluded or not.

The Chairman, (Cllr Fabian Craig-Wilson), had proposed that the public should be excluded, and it was put to the vote. We didn't see a recorded vote taken, (despite it being contentious) and we couldn't be sure who voted which way, but six members of the committee supported letting the public stay, and nine voted for exclusion.

It looked to us as though it was mostly the Conservative members who wanted exclusion, and mostly the independent or ratepayer Councillors who wanted them to stay, but we couldn't be sure.

And with that, out went the public.

Should Scrutiny have excluded the public?

Well, Fylde's own Constitution (rules of operation) sets out why Fylde has a Scrutiny system.

It begins: "There are two overview and scrutiny committees, called Scrutiny committees, which support the work of the executive and the Council as a whole. They allow citizens to have a greater say in Council matters by holding public inquiries into matters of local concern" (our emphasis)

Really!

It also says " Citizens have the right to:..... contribute to investigations by the Scrutiny committees where they invite public views"

But despite the Cabinet's intention to have decisions made openly and transparently, those views were not invited this time!

The Constitution also says "Citizens may:

i) contribute to investigations by Scrutiny committees into any matters relating to the Council's functions or its community leadership role where they invite the public to express views or comments;

ii) participate in committee meetings if permitted by the council procedure rules."


Another of the things the Constitution (5.2.9) says the Scrutiny Committee can do is to "invite any person to attend one of its meetings to address the members on or discuss with them any matter under consideration;"

Scrutiny is supposed to be the main point of connection for the Council as a body corporate and the public. It's where councillors ought to be seeking and testing public opinion.

And given the concern that exists amongst the am-dram groups (we'll come to that in a moment), and which has been notable in the press in recent days, we'd have thought the Scrutiny Committee would not have sought to exclude the public, but would have invited several representatives of the amateur dramatic groups, and indeed, some who attend as the audience, to come to their meeting to explain their concerns.

But they didn't.

Maybe the Scrutiny Committee should have a training session on its own Constitution.

In 2008, the Council issued "The Scrutiny Handbook" which was intended to help Councillors understand their scrutiny role in a non-technical text. Whilst it is now a bit long in the tooth, it has not been updated or rescinded and, so far as we know, it is (presumably) still in force.

We've selected a few quotes from it to act as an 'aide memoir' to those that would scrutinise.

"Overview and scrutiny committees must not include members of the Council’s Cabinet. They can co-opt members from outside the Council. Co-opted members will be non-voting, unless the council introduces a co-option scheme under the Local Government Act 2003."

"Scrutiny gives a voice to the concerns of local people and can help them to have some influence over the actions of the Council."

"Four principles of good scrutiny [are]

  • Providing a “critical friend” challenge to Cabinet as well as external agencies and partners
  • Reflecting the voice and concerns of the public and its communities
  • Taking the lead and owning the scrutiny process on behalf of the public
  • Making an impact on the delivery of public services"

We think it's difficult for Scrutiny to achieve its aims when its Committee meetings - and its task and finish meetings - are held in secret.

And that's why we're making such a fuss in this article about how Scrutiny should be done.

You can't hope to gain the trust of the community and "give a voice to the concerns of local people and can help them to have some influence over the actions of the Council" when your meetings are held in secret.

That said, the Committee did, of course, have the usual 'Public Platform' before it's meeting started, and a very well prepared chap had come to speak on behalf of about seven or eight of the amateur dramatic groups.

He was allowed just five minutes, and the chairman reminded him of that after four.

He said he was representing seven or eight (of what we recognised to be the more substantial) local amateur dramatic groups. He began by saying that he would be speaking from a prepared script, and would not be ad-libbing. (Nice touch! we thought).

He spoke articulately, and in measured terms, of the Trustee's proposed changes to the booking arrangements for next year, and of the impact they would have on the local groups.

He said as most people knew, finance and theatre were uncomfortable bedfellows. He said Lowther Pavilion was a multipurpose venue used - at least so far - chiefly by local amateur groups.

He said typically the groups aimed to break even. But in recent years they had seen an erosion of their income, and found it increasingly difficult to do so.

As evidence he cited some examples - They used to sell their own tickets, but now the theatre handles ticket sales, and takes something like £1,000 commission per show. Managing the lighting and sound used to be done by qualified volunteers within their groups at no cost to them, but now they are required to use the theatre's own technical staff and the technical support bill for the last production by his own society was £600.

He said they had been told there would be no significant increases in cost within the new contracts, but they had to disagree with that view. A like-for-like comparison showed that prices were going up 30% to 40%. He said this was an unsustainable situation, and frankly, many of the amateur groups were now looking for another venue because they could not afford what was being asked at Lowther.

In addition to the venue price increases, they were also going to have to give up 10% of their future income from programme sales, raffles, and other front of house income.

The new hire contracts that they were being asked to sign from next year put all the obligations onto the hirers, including a £20 an hour surcharge for cleaning the theatre after use if cleaning was necessary.

He said some of the societies were especially unhappy. One (which we referred to in 'Curtain Up'), called Pear Tree Productions had traditionally had a pantomime which they used to set them up financially for the year. But this year, despite having paid the booking fee last year, and had their date accepted, they had been told their booking could not go ahead because the letting had been made in favour of a company called 'Pendle Productions' whose chairman was also the acting chairman of the Lowther Gardens Trustees.

He said these changes had been imposed on the Societies with no advance consultation.

He said they had a meeting with the Trustees in January to discuss issues of concern, but had been told by the Acting Chairman Mr Lince that the Trustees would only be prepared to consider written questions that were submitted in advance.

We'd have liked to bring you the Scrutiny Committee debate that followed, but by majority vote, the meeting went into secret session at this point and we were, of course, asked to leave.

We heard that the acting Chairman of the Trustees spent an hour addressing the Scrutiny Committee, and that he didn't get his own way.

We've been waiting for the minutes of he meeting to be published so we could tell our readers the official position, but they seem unusually late. Even a fortnight since the meeting, they're still not available. That suggests something is amiss one way or another. We heard unofficially that they were going to set up a Task and Finish Group to look into the details, but more than that, you'll have to wait for the publication of the minutes Dear Reader.

But there are other developments - offstage - so to speak.

The well respected and very competent Friends Of Lowther Pavilion (who are completely separate from both the users and the trustees) have voted unanimously to request Fylde to involve them in the running of Lowther. We understand the Friends of Lowther Gardens are likewise of that mind, and we're amazed that Fylde didn't see fit to have Trustee representatives from both of these groups in the first place.

Equally we hear that the very able Peter Taylor - in our view responsible for much of the early success of the Pavilion Friends group - and joint organiser of the Lytham Proms events, has just been elected as Chairman of the Pavilion Friends group.

We understand he has written to Fylde to say the Friends think the final step in the transfer of responsibility to the trustees (a multi-year funding guarantee) should not take place whilst the Trust is in its current form. They are proposing that the Trust should be changed to include the Friends of Lowther Pavilion and the Friends of Lowther Gardens.

We think it should be even wider.

We understand the Friends are also suggesting that in the longer term, the management of the Trust should be as a community venture made up predominantly of volunteers, and so on.

This email we received from one of the 'Friends' explains their role quite well:

"The 'Friends of Lowther Pavilion' was started over three years ago by like-minded people from the various operatic and dramatic societies who use Lowther on a regular basis. We were concerned about the deterioration of facilities at the venue and felt that the council was neither interested nor did they have the money to do much about it.

What started off as a networking group soon emerged as a fully fledged 'Friends' group with one simple aim - to raise money to help refurbish the building and to make sure that the theatre survived as a community facility for the area.

We now have over 350 members who not only contribute with their subscriptions but enjoy the many dances and social events which we organise, the jewel in the crown being our New Year's Eve Party which is always a sell out.  We have raised thousands of pounds which have helped to refurbish dressing rooms and provide a new sound system to name just two.   

Our members also help out as volunteers in the theatre working alongside the paid staff.  We are not a political group and have no say in any of the decisions regarding the running of the theatre although we do of course make our feelings known to management when we feel decisions are not right - management at the moment being a combination of the council and the Lowther Trust.

As everyone is aware there have been a lot of changes at Lowther over the past year, some good some bad but it does take time for new regimes to settle in and there have been a lot of difficulties on all sides. The new Manager is very helpful and is trying her best in a very awkward position.

There are many plans to make the Pavilion into a fantastic venue and 'Friends' will do everything they can to support the theatre as long as it is maintained as a community facility welcoming a variety of events both amateur and professional. We are proud of Lowther Pavilion which has served this community since 1928. Let's make sure it has a future."

Initially, the reaction from Cllr Susan Fazackerley (Fylde's nominated Trustee) to the idea of changing the composition of the Trustees has not been positive (that is, if reports in the Express and the Gazette are to be believed - and we've no reason to doubt them). She appears to be taking the view that it's all done and dusted and the Trust is set up and cast in stone..

Separately, in another move, the individual groups that use the pavilion have come together to present a united front alongside the Friends. We understand they are due to have a meeting with the Trustees on 25th January, but from emails we've seen moving about, the Trustees don't seem that receptive, and appear to be adopting a "stop whinging and pay up - use us or lose us" view.

In some senses this is true.

Fylde has made the bed and appointed the Trustees. It's now up to the Trustees to decide how things are run.

But Fylde Council still - and will always - control the money-tap that funds the Lowther Gardens Trust. If that tap turns to 'Off' , the Trust will almost certainly fold with no income to fund itself. So even when they only have one Councillor Trustee, the Council - as holder of the purse strings - has the whip hand in what happens.

Indisputably, what should happen at this point in time, is that the Scrutiny Committee should call a halt to the process to enable a much more fundamental and considered view to be taken of the whole situation..

In creating the Lowther Gardens Trust, the Council has given birth to an organism that is stuffed with vested interests. It is not a trust that is of local people and for local people.

We've heard elements of the Council say they could only appoint those who applied, but we'd quite like to have seen the long list (rather than those shortlisted for interviews, as we've also heard the names of some who were, surprisingly, not apparently selected), and in any case, the Council was NOT limited to 'applicants'. It would have been perfectly proper for the Council to have invited representation from trust users to become what are known as 'User Trustees' as well. It could, in fact,  have invited anyone it thought appropriate.

We've no doubt that if the Council follows its stated top level aim of 'Promoting Social Cohesion' it will need to continue to support community activities - and for that to happen, and as we have said before, the Trust needs to be wider in breadth, and it needs a more local focus.

Crucial and fundamental to that will be for the Council to consider and decide what it wants Lowther Gardens Trust to do and be.

Like so much at Fylde now, the Cabinet system has anesthetised, detached and de-sensitised elected Councillors so that many do not have any sense of ownership or understanding of running public services. They rely on officers to do that, and, as we saw at Melton Grove, that produces human tragedy.

We sense that the present Councillors involved in this are adopting the Pontius Pilate style of management - they just want someone to take Lowther Pavilion off their hands..

At the heart of this concern about Lowther Gardens Trust and its wider role, is the sub-issue of whether Lowther Pavilion should be primarily a venue for local community use, or whether it should be a more 'commercial' theatre.

Both have financial risks attached. Community use will require a subsidy from taxpayers that might be in the order of £70,000 to £100,000 a year (a bit less than £1 a year per household). In exchange for this, the Council achieves its stated objective of promoting community cohesion, it welds people from diverse backgrounds together for a common cause and encourages groups like the Pear Tree Players to undertake charitable activity for local worthy causes.

The risk on the commercial theatre route is more complex. Lowther Pavilion is not big enough to take the 1000+ seat audiences that cover a theatre's fixed costs better, and it's too small to have the low overheads of an intimate 100 to 200 seat venue. As a result, most of the 'commercial' shows put on will need a subsidy to do so. This subsidy process may not appear as overt as with the Community Group use. It will usually take the form of losses on the difference between ticket sales etc, and the cost of show production.

Very rarely does it happen that a promoter will come along and give you a big fee to use the Pavilion for a 'commercial show'. There is almost always negotiation between promoter and venue, and some form of cost underwriting required from the venue.

If the eventual audience isn't as big as you'd hoped, the Trustees (for which read the Council in this case) end up bearing the loss or becoming insolvent.

So it's a more hidden subsidy than that historically given to the Community groups, but it's no less a subsidy.

As Mr Lince told us in his response to our last article "With regard to the Pantomime [that his company is producing at Lowther Pavilion this year] this was not a commercial contract. We were asked by council employees to look at whether a professional pantomime could be run at the theatre"

There you have it, Fylde's officers have decided they don't want amateurs, and we should be subsidising Mr Lince's company to stage a 'professional' (for which read quasi-commercial) pantomime production using our taxes.

What we don't know is how much of our tax was given in subsidy by the Council, because the figures are being dealt with outside of public scrutiny.

We might also be allowed the view in this instance, that the Council is turning a blind eye to what many, including the Charity Commission, might see as a conflict of interest by subsidising the business interests of a trustee.

We argue this isn't the sort of thing the Council's officers should be spending our taxes on. The Council isn't a theatrical promoter, and in any case doing that does little to promote social cohesion (or any of the other stated aims of the Council) anyway - although to be fair, you might be able to argue it on tourism grounds.

The other risk with following the current route of supporting route of quasi commercial productions, is that in order for the Council to be putting less money in, the income derived from other sources, including community groups, and so on, will have to rise.

This is undoubtedly going to kill off their use of the Pavilion, and they will go elsewhere.

This is not something that's going to happen in anger. It's a practical commercial fact. Voluntary groups can't afford to stage what they know will be loss making productions. They will have to find somewhere cheaper to use, or they will fold. Once they have gone (for one reason or another) and are no longer contributing to the Pavilion's costs, the prospect of generating money from it will become even more risky, and we suspect the threat of insolvency will loom large.

Like re-opening the Swimming Pools, that situation is going to be a very significant cost for future taxpayers to bear if such a mess has to be unravelled financially..

To be honest, we don't want to believe this, but we keep being tempted to wonder whether the Council is deliberately positioning the Lowther Gardens Trust to fail, in order to call into question the longer term existence of the Trust itself.

But even if that *isn't* their aim, they're presently going in the right direction to make it a reality.

Our view remains that there is not room for another 'commercial' theatre in the Fylde Coast. The Grand at 1,100 seats (just over twice the size of Lowther Pavilion) is better equipped to cover its costs, but even the Grand doesn't have an easy life. The Dukes in Lancaster (240 seats - about half the size of Lowther Pavilion) is not self supporting from commercial activity either. So we think that Lowther Pavilion meets the right need as an amateur and community venue and as a hall to be hired.

To do that effectively, the Trust - as we have said before - needs to be much broader in scope, and much more local in its composition. The only way that's going to happen is if Fylde threatens to turn off the money-tap unless the changes it wants to see made take place..

There is no suggestion that the gardens per-se should be self financing to any real extent - so why should another part of the gardens - (ie Lowther Pavilion) - be treated differently?

Why does that needs a 'business plan' when the bowling club is not asked to produce a 'business plan' for the gardens. Why is the subsidy to the bowlers, or to the children on the play area, or the residents that look at the flowers, any more or less important than the subsidy to the local community groups using the Pavilion?

And why is there something called a 'business plan' anyway - when that name implies the Trust is a business? Obviously it needs a financial plan, but it isn't and shouldn't be, a 'business' - it's a charity.

So we hope that Fylde will have a thorough look at what's going on here, and that probably means it needs another Scrutiny Task and Finish group. And if that's the case, we hope its meetings are held in public - so we can all see what they are considering, and we are all able to - as they say in their Scrutiny Handbook - help local people to have some influence over the actions of the Council

Dated:   25 December 2011


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