‘Open chequebook’ jibe as £1.75m Waterside Theatre subsidy revealed

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TAXPAYERS in the Vale will shell out £1.75 million towards running the Waterside Theatre over the next five years, it has emerged.

A document obtained by the Bucks Herald reveals that by the start of last month, the council had paid the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG) – which manages the £47 million venue – £494,982 in start up costs, management fees and hiring agreements since 2007. Of this sum, more than £293,000 has been paid since it opened in October.

This week critics called for a full public probe into the figures, hitting out at an ‘open chequebook’ policy at AVDC.

The council says subsidy payments have been agreed for the first five years of the 15-year contract with ATG.

But the council says the theatre is a vast improvement on its predecessor, the Civic Centre, which was losing more than £740,000 a year when it closed, and backers praised its impact on the Vale.

Figures released under the Freedom Of Information Act show:

l AVDC paid more than £192,000 in management fees to ATG between November 2010 and May 2011 – an average of £24,000 a month.

l The management fee for the first year will total £350,000.

l The council has paid £24,522 in hire and event management fees since the theatre opened, including a £1,100 bill for holding a Remembrance Sunday ceremony, and a £16,307 invoice for using the venue for last month’s election count, which totals £19,500 when VAT is added.

l AVDC paid £5,880 in subsidy grants for two school events and a Women’s Institute meeting at the Waterside.

l Start up costs for the theatre, paid out between June 2007 and March 2011, totalled £272,000.

The Bucks Herald this week asked to interview leaders about the figures, but were not this was ‘not possible’ due to an ongoing dispute over ‘negative’ stories.

Instead the council issued a written statement through its communication team, stating: “We believe that very few theatres operate without a subsidy payment from a local authority and/or the Arts Council.”

It also said the theatre would serve three times more people than the civic centre for ‘the same overall cost’.

But this week Councillor Steven Kennell, Liberal Democrat shadow member for finance, said he was alarmed by the figures.

He stated: “We were always told that this would pay for itself.

“The question needs to be asked as to how long it will take before we start seeing a return, if ever.

“It’s been very badly mismanaged.”

He said talks about the theatre contracts had been held behind closed doors – even though Liberal Democrats were invited to take part.

“We’ve been out of the loop, because the alternative was doing it behind closed doors bound by confidentiality clauses, so we declined,” Mr Kennell stated.

Councillor Chris Adams, UKIP group leader at AVDC predicted a public outcry at the figures.

He said : “I was staggered by these figures, it’s taken me completely by surprise.

“With all of these cuts coming, we’ve been seen to be spending willy nilly.

“Here it just seems to be an open chequebook, don’t worry about the residents.”

And Councillor Robin Stuchbury, Labour, said: “My initial reaction is shock.

“I think the cabinet needs to explain these figures, I’m finding it very difficult to justify them.

“The council is bound by the decisions already made, but we need to understand how the council’s taking it forward.”

Asked if there was a projected ‘break even’ point for the council, when all the cash spent on the theatre would be recouped, AVDC’s statement said: “It is anticipated that the theatre’s financial performance will improve over time.

“The position will be reviewed ahead of the retendering of the theatre operating contract.

“This will happen in 2023 ahead of the new contract commencing in 2025.”

The council stated that if it had proposed free hiring of the venue, higher tender bids would have been received.

The statement continued: “The chosen model of operation permits the council the opportunity to negotiate rates for each individual booking.”