Yet another example of East Devon District Council cherry-picking which assets it sells and which it keeps.
You might think it was simple: sell those that don’t make money and keep those that do. But it isn’t that simple when it comes to the arts and the community. Money was poured into the Honiton Beehive complex (£300,000 plus and maybe much more gifted, not loaned), the Thelma Hulbert Gallery, also in Honiton, has never made money but we are not allowed to know exactly how much it loses and the Manor Pavilion (Sidmouth) is similarly a financial mystery. EDDC hived off its leisure facilities to Leisure East Devon years ago but we are never too sure how much that company still receives in subsidy – information is scant.
But not so Seaton Town Hall – the town’s only arts and entertainment venue run by local social enterprise company Seaton’s Voice and called The Seaton Gateway. [A social enterprise company is not a not-for-profit company, it is simply a normal company that has a social mission as part of its Memorandum of Association according to government information]
Currently, the Gateway occupies the large ground floor which includes a large hall and bar facilities, the town council has the much smaller first floor and the museum the even smaller top floor. The upper floors are not accessible to disabled people having many stairs for access. The Gateway has three directors who run the venue with a large number of volunteer staff.
For some years, it appears that EDDC was prepared to subsidise The Gateway – which has made a name for itself with regular musical entertainment, live theatre broadcasts and rooms rented out to local groups and societies – EDDC has just written off a £30,000 loan it gave to Seaton’s Voice and was also paying 20% of the building’s utility bills.
Now all has changed. EDDC wants to divest itself of Seaton Town Hall and will only entertain transferring it to the town council and not to Seaton’s Voice.
However, in a twist of fate, at the same time, Devon County Council was keen to get rid of its own building in Seaton – the former Marshlands Centre which has been closed for some time – and for a knock-down price and the town council decided to buy it from them, using its reserves for the purchase, fearing that such an opportunity might not happen again.
This has put Seaton Town Council on the horns of a dilemma: move into its own almost purpose-built accommodation which it would own and run for itself or share an old building where the vast majority of the space is taken up by a private tenant which has been used to being subsidised or keep both buildings and all the financial pressures and problems of owning them both. But at the moment the Council IS saying both rather than one or the other.
It has been revealed that to make the building fit-for-purpose, the town council would need to take out a Public Works Loan of £400,000 plus and The Gateway company would need to fundraise around £200,000 – massive amounts for a small town council and for a small company.
If it keeps the town hall and raises the money, the town council will have a tenant which needs most of the useable and income-producing space but which operates with a shoestring staff of volunteers and which has not been used to operating at full cost and which will presumably also expect some sort subsidy from the town council.
In yet another twist of fate, the company running The Gateway has now said in the pages of the local press that it will not co-operate with the town council on a plan for the town hall now that it is purchasing Marshlands, because the council discussed the purchase behind closed doors without including them, and fearing, presumably and probably correctly, that the town council’s priorities cannot be its priorities.
It seems now that either the town council will decide it does not want the town hall at all or it will take on two buildings with the result that they will of necessity have much less to spend on the Town Hall than if it had been the only building it owned. But at the moment the Council IS saying both rather than one or the other.
So, we have SOME arts and community venues being subsidised by EDDC, and one it doesn’t want to subsidise and wants to slough off onto a small town council which would have to raise its precept in order to subsidise a private business to provide arts and community services.
Well done, EDDC. Still, at least councillors in the new HQ in Honiton will be able to pop to the Beehive and the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in their free time.