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The Final Act?

The Final Act?Since we last reported (in Stage Wrong?) on the moves taking place at and around Lowther Gardens Trust, there have been developments we thought our readers would like to know about.

First, we heard that the Scrutiny Committee was going to set up a Task and Finish group to look into the details.

They did that, and it has been meeting occasionally - but sadly, in secret. So the aim of Scrutiny - to interface with the public and maintain transparency - is being denied.

Secondly, there was a meeting with the Trustees of the Gardens and the local amateur groups. The plan for this appeared to have been set out as a 'divide and rule' scheme.

Each group would have eight minutes to make its 'pitch' as to why they couldn't afford the new arrangements and to say how they would propose to achieve the necessary savings.

That meeting was scheduled for 9th Jan, but we understand that the groups got together before then, and agreed they would put forward a united case explaining that as amateurs their only means of raising money is either from members, from sponsorship, from social events or the revenue they get from ticket sales, and they simply couldn't afford to pay more.

As people from the user groups had said, the Trustees would know from the box office sales how many tickets the groups sell for each performance, and the size of audiences they can expect. So they should be able to see that many of the groups are already losing money because the average production cost of a musical show is around 16,000 and a play is about 9,000.

Costs like those leave no room for additional revenue on the scale the Trustees were expecting.

Some groups also have charitable status that limits their possibilities for more commercial activity, and in any case - they mostly have constitutions that set their aims and objects as being educational and artistic rather than commercial.

We heard that the meeting with the Trustees went well. Or at least it appeared to have gone well with the participant groups, because it addressed the immediate issue of concern - their future costs.

But the outcome pleased us less.

We'll expand on 'why' toward the end of the article, but it seems the agreed course of action was for the Acting Chairman of the Trust to meet with each society separately and to see what could be done to come to some sort of compromise agreement about charges for the next year.

What was that about using divide and rule?

This was confirmed when we heard the Chairman of the Task and Finish group, Cllr Leonard Davies informally update the Cabinet at its last meeting. The exchange went like this. Cllr Buckley asked about how long the Task and Finish Group might take to conclude....

Cllr Andrews (* see update at end) Davies :
"It's going to take quite some time because Tim's still working on his, plans, that he's got. But, we've spoken to the amateur groups. Tim's brought them on board. They're getting more and more coming on board. That's the only part we've got, so we're not rushing it, but I would think about, maybe about three weeks. Four weeks at the very most.

Tim's doing a very good job. Tim Lince. He's having meetings with 'em virtually every day, but small groups. He's now had the big one, now he's having the small groups. And it's working quite well. I'm on the phone to him at least three times a day, and he's on the phone to me about at least twice a day. So we're working together and, as a unit, we'll...., I think..., Tim's working through. They'll come on board I think. I hope so anyway, because, there's no alternative."

Cllr Fazackerley:
"Could I just clarify Chairman, that when Cllr Davies talks about small groups, following the group meeting we had last Monday night, with representatives from ALL the amateur groups, it was decided that what they wanted and what the Trust wanted was to have one to ones with the acting chairmen, and that started on... where are we now, Wednesday... that started on Monday, so the acting chairman and the Trust is speaking to each Group representative and going through their accounts and their take on the fees and charges. So hopefully, there will be some compromise that will be reached in the very near future."

Cllr Cheryl Little
"Can I ask how many amateur groups there are?"

Cllr Andrews (* see update at end) Davies:
"Erm, that's a good question. Erm, they're spread all over the place. There must be at least fifteen, I would think. Large and small. Some have only got, like....".

Cllr Fazackerley:
"Including the Dog Show, and the Floral Society"

Cllr Andrews (* see update at end) Davies:


Cllr Fazackerley
"Well, I would have said there were eight or nine local amateur groups who regularly use the Lowther"

Cllr Eaves (Cabinet Chairman)
"OK? We're happy with that? Thanks."

So a series of meetings and phone calls were taking place.

Then, a long standing meeting between Trustees and the user groups was held on 25th January.

That had been established as another 'control freak' meeting in our view.

It was originally billed as a meeting at which the Trustees would only respond to written questions submitted in advance by groups members.

However at the start of the meeting, Mr. Lince said he was quite happy to answer questions as the meeting proceeded.

He also said that following the meeting with the groups, he hoped to be in a position within the next week or so to put 3 proposals forward relating to future fees for using Lowther. These could be then discussed further with the societies.

He also explained that there were now plans to make various advertising boards available around LSA (as of course, there always used to be - on St Annes Crescent, the Public Offices, Lowther Gardens, The Fairhaven Tram stop Fairhaven Lake, Ashton Gardens, and numerous other locations)

The groups were also concerned that the proposals were primarily designed for professional companies. Mr Lince told them that a new amateur contract was being drawn up and a draft would be circulated for comments. He also said the proposed additional 10% charge that was to be imposed on foyer sales would be abandoned.

Concerns about cost increases that the users predicted to be between 20% and 60% would also be addressed, as would worries about societies being able to continue to use their own technicians for sound and lighting and so on.

Mr Lince said once such people had been accredited by a member of Lowther staff, they could be placed on the casuals list of the theatre technicians.

So all seems to be going well, doesn't it?

There seems to be genuine accommodation being offered in response to concerns of the amateurs and other user groups.

So that's alright then, isn't it?

Well, we don't think so.

We see what's happening as a must-do reaction to what would otherwise be a complete disaster that shouldn't have got this far in the first place.

If the amateur groups stopped using Lowther Pavilion, it would lose something like half its income and it would close. So if they're right about not being able to afford the new charges (and we think they are), that would be the end of the show.

So in its own way, its a good thing matters are being addressed. Subject to the Trustees delivering on what the amateurs think they were promised at their meetings, it's likely that the short term will see things go quiet.

But that doesn't mean it's been fixed.

Like the austerity measures in Greece at the moment, it hasn't solved the underlying problem, and we could see contagion.

We see two fundamental problems. Both emanate from the Council, although one is more overt than the other.

The overt one was illustrated by one of the am-dram representatives who told us Fylde's Cllr Fazackerley had said at their 9th Jan meeting that within five years Lowther Pavilion had to be self-supporting or self-financing because the Council would not continue to subsidise it.

We know things are tight, but it's a question of spending priorities rather than money here, and we think we're heading into 'Swimming Pool' territory again.

It was the former Commissar's view that the pools ought not to run at a loss, and it was only because useless council employees didn't know how to run a business that they didn't turn a profit. He simply couldn't imagine anyone building a swimming pool if it wasn't going to make money. He neither understood, nor accepted the ethos of public service.

However, when he tried and couldn't make the pools pay, and he was short of cash, he closed them, and upset a lot of people. He killed off his aspirations to become Fylde's MP, cost himself his future as a Councillor, and cost us a great deal of money to restore the pools to operating capacity. (And even today, it's being subsidised by not a lot less now than it was before he started).

We can see Lowther Pavilion going the same way here.

The Council's corporate objectives - as set out at the front of every agenda it publishes are

  • To promote the enhancement of the natural & built environment
  • To promote cohesive communities
  • To promote a thriving economy
  • To meet the expectations of our customers

The Principles Fylde will adopt in delivering their objectives are:

  • To ensure our services provide value for money
  • To work in partnership and develop joint working

Now, in those objectives we see importance attached to community cohesion and meeting the expectations of its customers. (we take it they mean their electorate). But we don't see anything about abandoning public facilities if they can't break even or turn a profit.

It's our view that if Fylde carries out its intention not to fund the Pavilion after five years, it will cease to operate and it will close. There simply isn't a way that a 450 seat theatre / hall in Lowther's position can be made to run without public subsidy.

With fish occupying half of what should be its catchment area, and a dearth of public transport in the evening when shows are staged, it essentially relies on the very particular tastes of local people. They support the amateur groups mostly because they're also friends and family. That's why it works.

But there's another threat as well.

The less overt problem concerns the establishment of the Trust itself.

We've said before that we think it was very badly established. The focus of Trustees is almost exclusively on the Pavilion, yet the Trust is called the 'Lowther Gardens Lytham Trust' and the gardens parts of it are being very poorly served.

Fylde's choice of Trustees (and we don't buy the story that no-one else could be found) was very poor, and it urgently needs to be remedied by change.

There should be many more Trustees, some need to be 'user trustees' others need to be trustees representing local organisations with an understanding of the needs of local people..

Equally - at least if you believe in the Council's stated aim of community cohesion, and that the purpose of Lowther Pavilion is to further that aim - it should not have chosen arts professionals as trustees - especially those who operate their own quasi-commercial arts undertakings which risk their promoters being accused of a conflict of interest whenever they use Lowther Pavilion for 'their own' productions.

Like the former Commissar's plans to make the pools 'turn a profit' - this too is doomed to failure.

They should not be using Lowther Pavilion to routinely stage professional events that are neither popular with nor well supported by the local community. We've heard tell how low attendances at recent one-night events were being dismissed with the comment that 'once they have re-educated the audience to adapt to professional product it will get better'. That way lies folly. Arrogant folly. Not only will the losses mount, but the audience that don't want to be 're-educated' will all tell their friends "We went to the Lowther last week but it was awful. We're not going again"

The knock-on effect of such gossip on the more traditional and popular hirers of the Pavilion is obvious. They will lose audience as someone who knows better tries to re-educate their audience toward 'professional product.'

Finally, the Council should not be using and risking public money to support quasi-commercial productions that deliver no element of community cohesion. And they should definitely not do that when the are, at the same time, planning to withdraw the funding that supports the amateur groups that are themselves shining examples of community cohesion in action.

So, whilst the immediate problem looks solvable, and we should be grateful for small mercies we, sadly, see it as using a plaster to fix a fractured skull.

For all our sakes, we hope we're wrong.

Dated:  2 February 2012

UPDATE 9 February 2012
Our thanks to Cllr Fazackerley for pointing out the error in the verbatim section of this article, when we inadvertently renamed Cllr Davis as Cllr Andrews. We're always happy to correct factual errors and apologise to those concerned for our aberration.


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