Campaign for Better Transport letter to Ben Bradshaw

CBT | Save Our Buses white text RGB 2014 163x266

Using the template letter supplied by Campaign for Better Transport, I’ve contacted my local MP

Dear Ben Bradshaw MP,

I am very concerned about continued cuts to bus services. Following significant cuts to Local Authority funding from central Government, according to the Campaign for Better Transport in 2014/15 50 per cent of local authorities have cut funding for supported bus services. This has meant almost 500 services and routes have been cut or withdrawn completely, leaving many people cut off.

These bus services are a crucial lifeline for many people, but especially those of us who are either older, younger, disabled, seeking a job or on a low income.

Continuing to cut these services would not only greatly impoverish us, but also harm the economy as a whole. More people commute to work on buses than all other modes of public transport combined. For every £1 spent on buses they generate between £3 and £5 in wider economic benefits. Cutting buses is a false economy.

Buses are a key issue for millions of people and buses really must be given the political recognition from Members of Parliament that they deserve.

This year looks like it will be even worse than last for bus cuts, with over £10 million already earmarked to be cut by local authorities across the country. I want to call on you as my MP to recognise the importance of our buses and tell me what you and your party will do to stand up and speak up for buses in the coming weeks and months.

At the beginning of the week, Devon County Council announced a consultation that will cover 5 supported services in Exeter: D, U, M, P and T.

You are aware that the P service serves Cowick ward.

Since the route of the P avoids the GP surgery that looks after the health of the Cowick residents, it is thought by many not to function as suitable public transport – it certainly doesn’t serve their needs.

The proposals seek to withdraw evening and Sunday service to the P bus – meaning that the last evening service from the city centre to Cowick will leave the High Street at 2012 (on Sunday this will be 1712).

The 2011 census shows Cowick has the 2nd highest ward (out of the 18 in Exeter) of residents over the age of 65 and 3rd highest of those in bad or vey bad health. And 1 in 4 households in the ward do not own a car.

So for those without access to a car, or chose not to own one, or who cannot drive, or cannot afford a car, a bus service is key to a decent quality of life: with fewer buses, or none at all, journeys may not be made at all. 

I’m not sure if you have read the report from the IPPR thinktank, Greasing the Wheels: Supporting and Improving Britain’s Rail and Bus Services

It highlights that the poorest make more than three times as many trips a year by bus as the richest.

But while car ownership is nearly universal among wealthier people, only 30% of households in the poorest income decile own a vehicle. Poorer groups therefore rely on bus services or have to take taxis.

The report shows that the poorest fifth of households take more taxi journeys per year than any other income group – largely due to the unavailability, unreliability and high fares of their local buses.

Withdrawing the evening and Sunday services will only increase the social isolation of these vulnerable categories as they become even more housebound by these plans.

I look forward to your response.

#Theatre4Exeter – My thoughts on the Rose Theatre in Kingston

Following the publication by the Express & Echo of my letter on how I saw the financial viability of a 1200-seater city centre theatre, I have been amazed by how many compliments I’ve received. But others have questioned my views and suggested alternatives.

One such was asking why that city centre theatre couldn’t emulate the Rose Theatre in Kingston – a conversation of an Odeon Cinema – and one of the options mentioned by the Theatre for Exeter Development Group.

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

The overwhelming majority of voices I’m hearing is for a competitor to Plymouth’s Theatre Royal – with an auditorium seating in excess of 1200 and presenting the touring productions of musicals and theatre that constitute the programme in their Lyric Theatre. There are other models – costing considerably less, but I believe not meeting the *demands* of those currently calling for this large city centre theatre.

The Rose in Kingston is an interesting model – 900’capcity circular auditorium inspired by the shape of an Elizabethan theatre, but by no means looking backwards.

The thrust stage juts out into the auditorium, giving a new perspective to the relationship between performer and audience member. This alone would rule out the major shows the majority of correspondents in the E&E are calling for.

But it does reflect the kind of theatre I would like to see.

So to the construction costs – yes only £11m!

However, we don’t own the Odeon, so someone would have to find the money to buy it in the first instance. And that’s if the Odeon would consider selling someone the building.

It’s worth noting that the 2012/2013 annual accounts of the Kingston Theatre Trust (which manages the Rose) show the venue made a loss of more than £200k – this despite continued funding of £500k from Kingston Council and a further £380k from Kingston University.

However, I will acknowledge that there may be other models of financing and funding that might work – that’s why I need to see a viable business case.

If I were to play devil’s advocate (and second guess the final report), it is probable that the conclusion of Theatre For Exeter Development Group will be that a 1200-seat theatre is economically unviable, and it will recommend a venue with a capacity 750 – 1000. Will this placate those calling for a rival to the Plymouth Theatre Royal – NO.

Could I back this with an accompanying 10 year action plan as proposed by the T4E development Group – a qualified YES I was (and have been all through this debate) careful not to say NEVER to a city centre theatre. With an ailing and failing Pyramids, we need a swimming pool (actually, it’s really a leisure complex!) NOW.

Local Welfare Provision is under threat

The government wants to cut local welfare provision (LWP) – one off grants that support those living in poverty to cover unexpected expenses like fixing a broken cooker or topping up gas and electricity.

It’s a small amount of money that helps lift people out of homelessness, prevents others becoming homeless and stops much bigger costs later on.

The government is scrapping the £178 million LWA budget and has told local councils to fund it themselves. But with budgets already under pressure, councils of all parties have said there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to fund LWA in 2015-16.

We have one last chance to save this lifeline – please respond to the government consultation (2.2 Local Welfare Provision funding in Local Government Finance Settlement 2015-16 Consultation)  and tell the Chancellor of the Exchequer not to scrap LWP funding.

We don’t have long – the consultation closes on Thursday 15 January, so please take action now.

This is the template letter being used by Crisis

Dear Sir,

I am writing in response to the Local Government Finance Settlement 2015-16 consultation, as I am particularly concerned at the Government’s local welfare provision funding proposal (Question 1). I am copying in the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Local welfare assistance is a vital lifeline for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in society – it helps homeless people move into new accommodation, young people leaving care and women and families fleeing domestic violence. It helps to buy essential furniture, top up gas and electricity or to buy food in an emergency.

Cutting this funding would be disastrous: the LGA found that three quarters of councils would no longer be able to deliver local welfare assistance programmes if it’s scrapped. This would leave many people with nowhere else to turn.

I am pleased that the government has recognised how important this funding is in the local government finance settlement. However, the plans laid out are not enough. As Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people have argued, the current funding should be maintained and paid to councils in a separate grant, to ensure that councils can afford to keep such a vital service going.

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.