Never say never about a #Theatre4Exeter

I hope that no-one thought in my earlier blog, A new Theatre4Exeter MUST be financially viable, I was entirely dismissing the vision of delivering a city-centre theatre in the future.

The fact and figures where present to highlight why I feel that we cannot deliver it NOW.

Much of the discourse in the E&E and elsewhere seems to suggest that ECC cllrs have not even considered whether a theatre is viable now.

Trust me when I say I’ve led a delegation of key cllrs and senior officers to see Plymouth Theatre Royal (and their associated workshops, wardrobe and rehearsal space, TR2 – costing them close on £10m alone) and had informal chats with ACE.

Just like the general public at large, there are Individual factions of cllrs in favour, indifferent and totally against the idea of a new theatre. I would hazard a guess that some would like to see ECC follow Devon’s lead and cut all “arts for arts sake funding”.

Here in Exeter we (you) are lucky – there are 3 arts professionals within the ruling Exeter  Labour Group – and I know I’ll be doing my best to endure that Exeter continues to fund arts and culture.

We are only one of 3 local authorities in the country that currently spend 50p per week per resident

(this is the focus of the National Campaign for the Arts current campaign – 50p for culture:

Much is this is because of the amount that we spend on RAMM, but we still invest significant sums of money in a wide range of theatre provision. Looking at shifting this funding to a new theatre building would threaten Exeter’s current vibrant theatre ecology.

I am aware of the work of the Theatre For Exeter Development Group, as I was there at the original debate at Belmont Chapel organised by the Exeter Civic Group.

I welcome the action plan , and am looking forward to the thoughts of their theatre consultation on what they think might may be viable in the city.

If the report from their consultant can show a viable business case for a city-centre,  I am sure a suitable site could be found.

What I am less confident about is whether the City Council could (or even should) deliver the theatre.

The current report doesn’t seem to be wedded to this form of delivery – there is mention of local fundraising, trust funds, etc.

And the report doesn’t even know what sort of model would be used to run the theatre once it’s been built.

Let me play devil’s advocate for a second?  Especially if that business case might show some surprises.

When we started out on the journey towards a swimming pool, I thought that it would be a 50m competition pool or nothing. The business  case now shows that a 25m pool is needed in the SW – short-course competitions, water polo and many other activities are much more viable than a full 50m one.

What would be the view of the  Theatre For Exeter Development Group if the consultant could show a business case for city-centre theatre seating 750-1000, rather than the 1200 one to rival Plymouth Theatre (which seems to be the focus of the calls I’m hearing)?

I think I have to stop there and wait to see what the consultant’s report proposes.

Let me be clear, I have never said NEVER! I am a creative person and have managed to create magic out of nothing myself. Let’s see if we can do that it Exeter, even if it does take a decade.

So in theory if a viable business plan for a city-centre theatre (of whatever size) can be drawn up, I would be willing to consider it as part of the longer term strategy for the development of the city centre.

A new #Theatre4Exeter MUST be financially viable

Wordle from "A new theatre for Exeter"
Wordle from “A new theatre for Exeter” report

Over recent weeks there has been a great deal of debate, primarily with the Readers’ Letters pages of the Express & Echo but also elsewhere. However,to my surprise, it is rarely mentioned when I’m talking to Cowick residents of #LabourDoorstep.

While I respect the views of the correspondents, I take issue with them when they say that Exeter City Council hasn’t even considered the possibility

Indeed there is one such letter in this week’s Express & Echofrom Jackie McKee [ READER’S LETTER | “Growing  Exeter needs  venue”, 08 Jan 2015] who says:

“This was the latest in a continuing series of such remarks made by Cllr Edwards who seems intrinsically and irrationally opposed to a new theatre for the city.”

This in turn was making a reference to comments made the previous week by Jack Passmore [READER’S LETTER | “Bus station site is ideal for theatre”, 01 Jan 2015]

“Their argument seems to be based on the financial viability of having a theatre, and not the facility that the capital city desperately needs in its centre for everyone to use”

Some residents have contacted me about this issue. Here is my response:

Many thanks for your (not so) recent comments on the siting of the swimming pool on the site of the Bus & Coach Station site.

It is an issue I have long considered since moving to Exeter in 2004 – whether it be converting the old Debenhams building or building one on the site of the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment.

I have written letters to the E&E, tweeted about the subject as @CllrPaul4Cowick and blogged about it – many of these thoughts can be found HERE.

I have been following the conversations on the calls for a new theatre on the Bus & Coach Station site since they were first raised in Express & Echo by Steve Bloomfield nearly 2 years ago [‘Turn bus station site into new theatre‘, Express & Echo,  08 March 2012]

I have decided to enter the debate at this stage following the comments made by Jack Passmore on the letters page of last week’s edition – and in particular,  ‘their argument seems to be based on the financial viability of a theatre.’

As a city councillor, I am elected to consider such things; I have to consider the financial viability of a capital expenditure on such a major project. As an elected member to Exeter City Council I have to look at the facts.

Other correspondents have talked about having a large theatre slap bang in the centre of the city if I understand them correctly nothing short of a theatre with a capacity over 1200 plus to rival Plymouth’s Theatre Royal would satisfy their wishes?

So let’s explore the financial viability of those desires, shall we?

I’m not sure if people know, but I am theatre practitioner – a freelance theatre sound designer that works across the country and internationally.

During 2012/13, I toured the UK with Stephen Daldry’s award winning production of An Inspector Calls on a Number 1 tour playing venues in the main seating 1000+

In the main, these were traditional theatres, often built by the great Frank Matchum in late 1800s. However, we did visit some more recent examples.

Indeed, one in particular struck me as most interesting – the Waterside at Aylesbury. A striking building with a seated capacity of 1200 (and retractable seating to give a standing capacity of 1800). And it was built in the last few years, opening in the autumn of 2010. I could see something like that in the middle of Exeer

So I did some research…

The venue cost in the region of £47m to build

Compare this with the cost of the swimming pool. The business case we have worked up shows that £20m capital expenditure will be spent on this new asset, funded by a combination of New Homes Bonus, Community Infrastructure Levy, capital receipts from land sales and borrowing.

If this was spent on a new theatre rather than replaced an ailing swimming pool, the amounts of NHB, CIL and capital receipts would be similar. So any difference would have to be made up entirely from borrowing – £27m of ADDITIONAL borrowing.

There is a Theatre For Exeter Development Group that has looked at the background to building a new theatre in the city centre, and they released a report in February 2014.

In their report, the T4E Group outline where they think the money might come from (this is definitely NOT a business case). The report points to private investment,  local fundraising, national lottery support and subsidy form Arts Council England covering some of the costs of the new theatre – but admits that a shortfall “would leave a  commitment by Exeter City Council and other local government partners” of between 40% and 60% of the overall cost.

But I reiterate, these figure are guesstimates of what neighbouring local authorities and Devon County Council might contribute, No one has asked them as yet.

It is my belief that DCC, East Devon District Council and Teignbridge District Councils already have enough calls on their rapidly diminishing budgets – and would be unlikely to answer calls to fund a new theatre in Exeter. But who knows?  Perhaps something might arise – Phoenix-like – out of the recently announced Memorandum of Understanding on Greater Exeter Visioning Partnership?

So where else might funding for the new venue come from?

Mr Passmore’s recent letter suggests that the City Council could raise money by selling the Northcott Theatre to the University. There is a fatal flaw in this suggestion – the University already owns the theatre.

Informal discussions with Arts Council England [ACE] hint that there would be little or no money from them for a new theatre in Exeter.

So without the magical appearance of a modern-day Mr Northcott coming forward to fund the new theatre, I cannot see how it could be built.

And believe it or not, raising the capital for the project tis probably the easy part! There is then the issue of funding of the running costs to be considered.

From April 2015, ACE is ploughing significant funds into the Northcott, Theatre Alibi and Bike Shed Theatre (as well as other arts and cultural bodies within the city, including RAMM) under the 3-year National Portfolio Organisation scheme. Because of this, I am certain there would be no likelihood of significant ACE funding coming forward to subsidise any of the running costs of the new operation.

Going back to the Waterside in Aylesbury, there the local council pays a commercial organisation (ATG – Ambassadors. Theatre Group) some £25,000 PER MONTH to run the venue on their behalf. This is a one-way transaction – ATG get any profit with nothing being returned to Aylesbury Vale District Council by ATG.

So why would AVDC chose to go down this route? Probably because their previous civic theatre was losing them more than £740k a year when it closed.

I talked earlier about borrowing for the capital costs – there is no chance of borrowing to cover revenue costs. So ECC would need to find the money from revenue sources.

The City Council already invests heavily in the arts and cultural sector within Exeter, with no spare funds to invest in the significant running costs of such a building.

Could DCC, EDDC and TDC contribute? Nothing to stop them  in the past, they used to help fund the Northcott. But they no longer do.

Each of these local authorities have cut their arts and culture funding in times of relatively prosperity, so it doesn’t bode well in these austere times.

Back in April 2014, National Campaign for the Arts analysed local authority spending on arts, museums and heritage as part of 50p for Culture. It found that Exeter is one of only 3 local authorities spending more than 50p per person per week in arts, museums and heritage (the other 2 are City of London and Middlesborough).

For comparison, Plymouth spends 19p, East Devon 03p, Teignbridge 02p and Devon County Council only 01p per person per week.

And at their Full Council meeting in early December, DCC announced that from 2016, they would be cutting entirely any funding of “arts for arts sake”.

As a theatre practitioner I wish it weren’t so, but as a city councillor I have to take heed of the financial viability of such a project. As it stands at the moment, I cannot see a way to make the figures stack up.

I know that the T4E Development Group are currently in the process of engaging a theatre consultant to look at making a viable business case – and from that develop an action plan for a new theatre to cove the next decade. To that end, I wish them well.

Many people seem to think the option for a new city centre theatre is the Bus Station site or nothing.

I think that the New Theatre for Exeter Group are more open-minded about the siting of a new building and I believe that there may other options in the city centre that might come forward.

So it is a mistake to represent the discussion on the swimming pool and theatre as if one prevents the other – they are only mutually exclusive on the Bus & Coach Station redevelopment site.

If someone can make a viable business case and come up with a funding package, I am sure a suitable site (other than the Bus and Coach) might become available

So why a swimming pool over a theatre – there is a demonstrable NEED for the form to set again an understandable DESIRE for the latter.

The Pyramids is an ailing –and rapidly deteriorating – facility that is well past its original lifespan – I’ve seen reports from 2001 suggesting that a replacement was urgently required). It often has operational problems – at times costing large funds to put right. It will take tender loving care to keep it limping on to 2018.

That’s why I have supported Exeter City Council in building the business case for a new swimming pool and leisure complex now.

And that’s why I have been proud to support the inclusion of a new swimming pool for the city in the manifesto commitments made by Exeter Labour Party in successive local elections.

It’s not that I don’t see the benefits that a new theatre could bring to the city centre, but I really can’t support the call for a new theatre without a financially viable case being made.

UPDATE | Cowick’s pothole petition

Express and Echo

Community News | 21 November 2014


Pothole Pettion

As previously disclosed in Community News, there are more that 200 potholes in Dorset Avenue.

And as a petition is about to be presented to the County Council, local councillor Paul Bull has discovered through a Freedom of Information request that, so far this year, DCC has paid out more than £5,700 in compensation to Exeter car drivers for damage caused by the state of th’s road – that is nearly as much as was paid out in total for the whole of the previous 4 years.

Cllr Bull told Comunity News: “Despite earlier reassurances, it was decided that Exeter Highways and Traffic Orders Committee [HATOC] was not the correct body to receive our Dorset Avenue resurfacing petition, and it was agreed it should either be presented to either Devon County Council’s Cabinet or Full Council instead.

“It is hoped that Cllr Roy Hill would do this at the December meeting of one of these bodies.”

Fellow councillor Heather Morris said: “Of course, it was frustrating – not for us, but for the 100 signatories of the petition.

“And those 200 potholes are just the tip of the iceberg. There are potholes all over the ward.”

Cllr Bull added: “On Saturday, I was speaking to a resident in Oak Road, who told me that his street hasn’t been resurfaced in the 30 years he’s lived there.

“He was telling me he’s just about to get his car repaired yet again after  damage caused by the road surface.”

Cllr Bull said: “The response to my FoI request shows that, in the year to date, almost as much has been paid out in compensation as in the previous 4 years.

“If the County Council doesn’t start to address the potholes, I can see claims for compensation going even higher.”

Screen shot 2014-11-23 at 14.13.34

LATEST | The intention now is to present the Dorset Avenue Resurface NOW1 petition to DCC Full Council at County Hall at 2.15 pm on 11/12/14 

E&E Letters | Show us the airport cash calculations!

JOHN Hart says that he is getting tired of the ‘Exeter has been hard done by’ scenario (Drop call for more cash, city told, E&E, 14July 2011) since he revealed that Exeter may not get all the promised £10 million from the sale of Exeter International Airport to build a new Central Library.

He went on to tell us that he believes the money already spent elsewhere, both in the city and the county, has come from the Investing  in Devon Fund, set up following the sale of the airport. So the money has been spent. Why couldn’t the residents of Exeter have been told this earlier?

For over two years since Cllr Hart became leader of Devon County Council, he has had ample opportunity to say that there would be no money to spend on a new library for the city, money promised by a previous administraton.

I am well aware that a change of administration may well mean a change of focus in plans and projects. Indeed announcements of this sort are expected.

Now Cllr Hart and senior Cabinet members say “£10million will get you nothing.” They say “It will cost somewhere in the region of £40 million for a new library.” I ask, where are the figures to support this?

In addition to being a councillor, I am a freelance theatre sound designer, and as such I tour the country and work in many cultural venues. I can point to two recently opened spaces that would question these figures.

Leicester’s Curve – a 750 main auditorium and a 350 studio theatre – opened in November 2008 at a cost of £60 million. This, on a larger site than the library location, for a technically advanced theatre for the modern age.

Well, that brings me to the C.L.R.James Library and Hackney Archives in Dalston, which opened earlier this year. This is a modern-looking library, topped off by social housing, on a site about the same size as that occupied by the Central Library in Castle Street. The cost? Oh, some £4.5million – the exact figure currently on offer from Devon Country Council for refurbishment.

So, I for one, applaud the Echo’s “Show Us The Rest Of The Money” campaign and would urge them to take up a new one – “Show Us Your Calculations.”

Paul Bull
Labour and Co-operative Councillor for Cowick