120426 Address to Scrutiny Committee

Address as delivered to the Guildford Borough Council Corporate Improvement Scrutiny Committee (26th April 2012)

My name is Julian Lyon, I have lived in Guildford for all of my 51 years and, of the things that make Guildford so special, its excellence in the provision of Arts ranks very highly. 

I well recall many Sunday afternoons sitting in the back row of the balcony of the old Civic Hall with my parents and siblings from the age of five, listening to and watching the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra – including, when I was around 7, hearing the Philharmonic Choir (now Vivace) performing the seemingly unapproachable piece: Elgar’s The Kingdom. 

I have to declare an interest this evening, therefore, because, according to the report in front of you, I have benefited disproportionately from the existence of the Philharmonic for 46 of its 67 years.  I am also a trustee – following in my father’s footsteps – of the South East Music Trust and I have, in the past, sung in the Philharmonic Choir. 

That interest is precisely what gives me the passion and, yes, responsibility to address you today.  I should note that I have been advised by the Chief Executive to avoid making references to any part SEMT could play going forward, in case that affects the future direction or impacts on the process hereafter.  I have taken the view (having originally been invited by the Chairman to participate in this discussion on the record, and then asked by officers instead to arrange to meet with the Chief Executive) that I need to set some records straight and to tell you how I see the process and current situation.  I should also say that I had a brief conversation with David Hill, who called me this afternoon, and reminded me that he is only just picking this up following the departure of Jim Miles. 

Over the past few years, I believe the Philharmonic has been treated quite shabbily – I am sure this has not been deliberate for the most part – and its budget has been progressively cut (and consequently the number of performances reduced) to the extent that the overheads make up an increasingly large amount of the per-ticket subsidy. 

In the Council Budget for 2010-2011 the Philharmonic was allocated a budget of £245,000 approved by the Full Council.  A couple of months later the budget was reduced to £190,000 – it is very difficult to plan a season properly under such circumstances.  

The figures in the report do not include audiences reached by virtue of the SEMT’s support, which provide added profile for Guildford and typically, SEMT has provided opportunities for amateur groups to perform with a professional orchestra – an important aspirational role in working with the many non-professional choirs and music groups in the area. 

The information in the report relating to Worthing borough Council tells a mere fraction of the story. Worthing also funds Worthing Symphony Society to the tune of at least £25,000 per year plus other classical music groups for an additional £50,000 – and there are other elements of funding which do not quite add up from their respective websites. Clearly this, and other Local Authorities’ provisions, requires more analysis. 

All of this notwithstanding, we are in a position where the Philharmonic will have no programme of concerts for 2012/13 (except the postponed and rearranged Messiah concert from last year).  This is tantamount to closing the Philharmonic as a staffed operation by default (or committing to maintaining the overhead for the next year whilst having no concerts to show for it). 

Because there are staff involved, it is unreasonable to conjecture further about their futures here, but it is equally unreasonable to keep them dangling on a thread, and I would urge the Council at large to clarify their positions as a matter of urgency. 

I am also VERY concerned that we seem to be discussing a tactical paper as if there is an agreed direction or destination of travel. 

I have become aware recently that a growing number of residents and stakeholders are challenging the Council’s apparent lack of vision.  This discussion is not the same as the Town Centre Masterplan saga but the symptoms are remarkably similar. 

Before considering the paper as a blue print, or even an options analysis, there needs to be much more information (and greater accuracy too), there needs to be an engagement with the community at large to understand what provision the Council should be making for the arts in general, and there needs to be an informed debate amongst the Full Council as to what they believe the future of arts funding should be – and I fully accept that I may not like the outcome! 

The Councillors should decide whether they really want to dismantle part of Guildford’s recent (67-year-old) heritage; the Councillors and Officers should engage with potential partners, alternatives, or other interested parties to enable the Councillors to determine its vision for the future (and in fairness, this was part of David Hill’s telephone discussion); the Chief Executive and his management team should then identify the best way to implement the Council’s wishes.  This is not a process for closed-book analysis and imposition. 

This paper when I read it, and this process as played out to date, have the feel of an ambush and a fait accompli.  I don’t like it but I recognise some of the underlying reasons. 

The premise is that £190,000 annual funding for the Philharmonic is not sustainable in this period of austerity. 

I do think, however, that I need to highlight again the apparent absence of vision when dealing with the replacement Civic Hall, which we had thought was to be a coming home for the Philharmonic who had lived ‘on the road’ for several years. 

The Council was offered, as I understand it, around £20m for the site for residential and supermarket development – indeed the level of offers on the so-called ‘Waitrose site’ would seem to support this; the University offered to build the hall on its land at its expense.  Here, though, we have a hall which we have paid for – and replies to enquiries have determined ‘the Council has no involvement in running it’, where the operating subsidy is a substantial £328,000 per year for nine years after an initial boost of £450,000.

By my calculations, that effective investment of approaching £50m of actual cost and opportunity cost amounts to around £375 per resident of Guildford[1].  Way above the subsidy level of £1.48 per resident that the current funding for the Philharmonic represents – indeed, even at a conservative rate of interest on the total investment, the interest foregone would have funded the Philharmonic four or five times over each year at current levels. 

So, before this paper becomes Council policy by default, we need to understand a few things:

  • What are the Council’s priorities? 
  • What should the Council be funding and at what overall annual cost?  
  • Perhaps more to the point, who decides and who gets a say in that decision – it seems to be all too often that the full body of Councillors we have elected do not!

In order to try to inform the discussion and to help arrive at a vision and a plan, I am ready personally to assist in any way that I can, and I am sure that my fellow trustees of South East Music Trust will join me.  I am aware of other groups who would have plenty to say on the matter, and I think there are many ‘quieter’ voices out there that need to be heard. 

The future should not be defined by this flawed report but the Philharmonic staff need to and deserve to understand how this hiatus and the future process will affect their positions. 

Thank you for listening.

[1]     It also amounts to £1,000 per seat per year at 2% interest or £4 per ticket assuming a full house on each of 250 events per year.

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