Sutton Council have given notice of their intention to shut Sutton’s two theatres if they cannot find a community group who can put together a credible outline business plan for the venues within the next seven weeks. The Secombe Theatre in Sutton town centre and the Charles Cryer in Carshalton are at risk of joining Wallington Public Hall in a council sell-off to save cash.
At a meeting of Arts Network Sutton, a senior councillor told the room that the council had to save £40m over the next 5 years as a result of the Local Government Finance Settlement announced by the government back in December 2014. Despite work starting on a report on the viability of the theatres, there was no mention that this was on the cards for the seven months following the announcement, least of all throughout the local election campaign when the ruling administration successfully retained power for another four years. Now, local community arts groups have been given just seven weeks to ascertain all of the financial information for the theatres, details of future bookings and exactly what the council are looking for in a good outline business case. At time of writing this information had not been released by the council in its entirety, thus limiting the time scale even further.
Meanwhile, the Sutton Life Centre which attracts roughly half the number of visitors (for the main facility behind the library) than the theatres is not earmarked for a review of its viability until next year. So why the undue haste? It appears that Finance officers want departments to have their savings reported to the top by January 2015. Despite a lengthy consultation of Sutton’s Future where residents are being asked where the axe should fall, the council seems to have made its mind up.
Now I’m not against looking at ways that our local arts scene can survive without subsidy from the council. The mood from the meeting last night was that the local arts community shared that view. They were happy to look at ways that this can arise. However a seven week rush does not give much opportunity for a disparate group of people to share their ideas and vision and come up with much detail.
There are some minor things which to me demonstrate the council’s haste and suggest opportunity for more major concerns down the line. Firstly at the council meeting where consultation on the future of the theatres was discussed, the council report asked for the method of consultation to be ‘agreed’. At the meeting this was downgraded to ‘noted’. Semantics? Maybe, but with that come a few ramifications. No elected member has actually had a say in agreeing that a seven week consultation is the way to go. Members of the committee noted that officers seemed to have taken the decision for them. Where will that stop? When I cast my vote back in May, I was looking for a councillor that would make decisions on my behalf, not hand them over to unelected officers.
Secondly, the council officer who bravely attended the meeting last night, told the group that she had spent yesterday thinking about what constitutes an outline business case. Surely the sensible thing to have done was to have considered this before the consultation started, not during. How can community groups be confident that they are working on something that is vaguely in line with council thinking when the council hasn’t even come up with it’s own view? It’s not all doom and gloom. The lead councillor and officer were adamant that facts and figures would be put up on their website and answers that arose from various parts of their consultation would be available within days. Nonetheless, the timetable already seems to be running ahead of the decision makers and the people that may suffer will be the theatre groups who rely on the two local venues and the 22% of the borough who visit the Secombe and Charles Cryer.
You can have your say until 3rd October at the council’s Sutton’s Future website but show your support for our local Arts scene by signing my petition here. Even if you are not a regular theatre-goer, once they’ve gone, they’ve gone for good.