Cllr David Chapman's response to the 'Exciting' Plans for Worthing Theatres? - Adur & Worthing Liberal Democrats
Adur, West & East Worthing Party including East Arun

Cllr David Chapman’s response to the ‘Exciting’ Plans for Worthing Theatres?

Exciting Plans for Worthing Theatres?

Central Ward Councillor David Chapman in the only Lib Dem member of the cross-party Worthing Borough Council Theatres Working Group that has recently considered the bids for the external Management of the Theatres and the present in-house Business Plan produced by the Theatres Management Team.

David says

“I have to say that as a member of the Theatres Working Group, I was not aware that such a press release ‘Exciting Plans for the Worthing Theatres’ was to be published.   It was not discussed at any of the meetings of the group, and I was not in any way consulted on the content.     It disagrees with my perception of the situation and I would like my views to be known.

I do not think the statement that this Business Plan ‘was exciting’ truly reflects the feelings of all the members of the working party, particularly the Councillors.

In point of fact, although the Theatre Management Team has had over two months to produce this plan, it only emerged on the Friday prior to the Monday meeting on the 12th March.    Most Councillors only managed to get a copy of the plan on the Monday morning hours prior to the meeting. I received my official copy on the Thursday after the meeting.

My protests that we did not have enough time to fully consider the Business plan and that having considered the plan it should come back to the Theatres Working Group was dismissed because ‘it would slow the process of introducing these necessary steps to achieve the savings.’

We cannot but welcome the various initiatives that the Theatre Management have put together.   They will go some way towards improving the theatre provision and should shave something off the deficit.

However, the point was made by many people, including the Leader of the Council, Paul Yallop, that there is nothing new in these measures that could not have been actioned years ago.   It would have removed the necessity of going through last years expensive and time consuming procurement process.

One is left with a lack of confidence of the commitment of the Management Team to follow through.    We have already seen the disastrous attempt to introduce one new booking system – can the same team now promise and guarantee any better on a second attempt?

The point was also made that one of the bidders, The Worthing Theatres Trust, who had a put in an unsuccessful expression of interest, and had stated that they retained an interest and would be happy to continue to support the Worthing theatres.  They offered what amounts to a free consultancy to help the Theatres Team in the development of a Business Plan.    It would have been a powerful endorsement of the plan, giving the Working Party more confidence in taking it forward.   Officers had made no move to involve the Trust in the business planning, or even to allow them to see a copy of the document to get their official comments and reaction.

As for the plan itself.   The Theatres Working Party – particularly the Councillors were not overly happy with the content.    It contains a great deal of operational and background material that is not really relevant.   It does not provide adequately costed balance sheets to show how the savings will be achieved, or the action plans to show how these targets will be implemented and the monitoring process to do so.

Figures are not clear – but whilst it shows that it will reduce the subsidy, it also shows a capital outlay of near £600,000 to achieve this, to be paid in part by a ticket levy.   There are also additional costs of £55,000 a year included in order to facilitate the Business Plan and there was some question as to the accurate costings of these staffing proposals.

Several suggestions where made by the Working party in discussing the Business Plan – for example looking wider in terms of the attraction of audience, working in concert with other theatre managers to book shows at more competitive rates.   It was not clear that the Management Team had taken on board the difference between overall income and marginal income.    There is no evidence of these views in the revised plan.   It was also remarked that we were not sure that officers had taken on board members views.

Some of the bids submitted in the external expressions of interest that were considered last year by the Working Party could have revitalised our theatres with external management and the offer of as much as £2 million pounds in capitalisation of the Theatres for refurbishment, even if the management or subsidy costs remained at the level they are at the moment.   The Business Plan presented to the Theatres Working Group compared poorly to the well presented and detailed submissions by the bidders for the theatres concession – in some cases show by show – of how they would run the business.  The present management – had they put this plan in as a bid at that time in that arena – it would have fallen at the first hurdle.

Comments have been made about the time taken to produce the Business Plan – and questions could be asked as to whether the excuse of the extra work on the Pantomime is sufficient.   One would expect that most of the work goes into the programming, promoting and setting up of these events – and once in place it is just a matter of ensuring the ticketing and staffing are in place.   If, as Paul Yallop says in his letter on this subject to the Herald (March 22nd), that there are £294,000 of ‘support charges’ in running the theatres, some of which would assumed to be line management costs, then it is reasonable to expect a working and competent business plan provided to a timetable to enable everyone to fully comment and participate.

One of the arguments given for keeping the Theatres in house was that there was a change in senior council staff that would facilitate entrepreneurial approaches that had previously been stifled.   There is little evidence of that.

It is not to say that there are not a lot of good things in the plan – but there are a lot of deficiencies that are being glossed over.

Nearly everyone who is contributing to the debate about the Theatres shares in the wish to have a vibrant theatre provision in the town and a case could be made for justifying continued subsidisation as long as it can be proved we are getting value for money.     The reality is that almost all local theatres would not exist without a municipal subsidy – but it is the present Conservative administration that announced the need to produce savings on the Theatres Budget and that now seems to be making such a hash of implementing them.

Perhaps there is a need for a more radical plan for the Theatres that moves Council Officers outside their zones of comfort.”

David Chapman

Councillor for Central Ward

01903 237474

07957550813

David.pc@ntlworld.com

Worthing Borough Council Press Release:

Exciting plans for the Worthing Theatres

Worthing Borough Council’s senior theatres management team has produced a business plan as previously agreed to reduce the net operating cost of the theatres service, by at least 25%, whilst producing a sustainable and viable theatre offer for the future. This plan will be considered by the Joint Strategic Committee at 6.30pm on Tuesday 27th March at the Adur Civic Centre.

The report highlights the main areas for generating additional income and the investment required which has been considered by the Theatres Working Group to meet the challenging financial targets set by the Council in the future management and operation of the Worthing Theatres.

The highlights of the draft plan include:

· Providing a viable and sustainable theatre offer at the Connaught Theatre, Pavilion Theatre and in the Ritz Digital Cinema

· Recommending that the Council continues to operate at the Assembly Hall, but on a reduced programme of activities. Primary focus is on the Wurlitzer Organ concerts, the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and classical concerts alongside private hire events such as dance and the London Taxi event

· Bringing the theatres catering in-house which will offer improved service and many opportunities for the venues

· Installing a new box office system that will improve the booking service to theatregoers and is the key to unlocking many exciting new initiatives to improve the theatre experience in Worthing

· Installing a new digital projector in the Connaught Theatre to offer an improved cinematic experience

· Introducing a ticket levy to fund future improvements to the facilities

· Exploring opportunities for attracting sponsors and other external funding streams

· Increasing staff resources to ensure the business plan can be implemented

The report sets out how the above initiatives and many others planned will generate a substantial increase in income from running the theatres, some of which will be put towards future improvements, but also making an substantial contribution to meeting the savings target and reducing the subsidy by £190,000 per annum.

The report and draft business plan can be found on www.worthing.gov.uk.