Updated: January 29, 2010
New group formed to save Burnham-On-Sea Tourist Centre from axe

This is the new group that was formed on Thursday evening (28th January) to save Burnham-On-Sea's Tourist Information Centre from closure.

The new working party - comprising business, council and tourism chiefs - was appointed during a meeting attended by almost 60 people at Burnham's Town Council Chambers.

The new group, consisting of Cllr Neville Jones, Jonathan Walter, Bob Nicholson, Bob Smart, Eileen Shaw, Annette Haggett, Doug Bamsey, Tom Ashton, Graham Plant, Roger Keen, Les Barber and Michael Clarke, has the job of finding sources of funding to secure the future of the seafront facilities.

Cllr Neville Jones revealed at the meeting that the centre's short-term is safe after the Town Council's Finance Committee decided to award a "significant sum of lifeline funding" to keep it open until October while the new group searches for funding.

Cllr Jones said: "This will act as a lifeline to keep the Tourist Information Centre (TIC) open and allow us enough time to find a solution. It gets us over the immediate problem and keeps the centre open during the summer tourist season," he said.

The centre's budget and revenue was unveiled for the first time, with gross expenditure for 2009/10 being £126,570 and income being £44,440 - making a net annual loss of £82,130.

Doug Bamsey, Corporate Director at Sedgemoor District Council, told the audience why the council is being forced to close the centre. He said: "We face the challenging reality of numerous financial pressures and have to make huge savings."

He explained: "The cost of concessionary bus fares, extra recycling, reduced financial support from central government and reduced council tax income have all taken their toll. Last year, the council had to remove £100,000 from the tourist centres' budget. While we received £400,000 of LABGI (Local Authority Business Growth Incentive) funding from London to keep the centres running for a year, this will soon run out and new funding will not available for the next financial year."

"As a consequence, we have no money in the budget to keep the centres running. Reluctantly, therefore, and despite the excellent work of the team in Burnham to maximize income and reduce the reliance on subsidies, the centre will have to close at the end of the financial year unless other partners can take it on. We are very keen to help the working group on this."

Cllr Anne Fraser, Sedgemoor's Executive Portfolio Holder for Strategy and Business Development, told the meeting that it "saddens me enormously" to be discussing the possible closure of the centre. She added: "I want to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of the TIC team in Burnham. We have one of the leading, award-winning TICs in the country, and it is with great sadness that we are holding this meeting. I don't want our TIC to disappear - it brings a huge amount to both our community and economy and I hope we can find a good outcome."

The discussion was opened up to the floor, when the audience had a chance to give views on the best way forward. Gillian Davies of Cheddar Parish Council said: "The problem is far wider than Burnham alone. Many councils are struggling to keep their TICs open." She asked whether South West Tourism had been approached for funding, to which Mr Bamsey said other groups "have not given us any positive feedback."

Louise Parkin questioned why annual employee costs at Burnham TIC amounted to £78,530. She said: "Those costs are astronomical from a business point of view. The figure needs to be dramatically reduced, possibly by using a mixture of professionals and lesser-skilled staff."

Bob Nicholson, Chairman of the Somerset Tourist Association, told the meeting: "I feel very sympathetic for the staff, who are here with us at this meeting tonight, and feel very uncomfortable to be discussing these matters. It is ridiculous that more funding from South West Tourism cannot be secured considering the whole of our region receives over £1million a year but no-one sees where the cash goes. We should be lobbying central government on this."

Cllr Ken Smout asked about the new working party's objectives, while Pat Stokes asked whether the existing seafront tourist centre building could be sold, possibly to fund the creation of the service at another venue. Louise Parkin said another venue of the same stature would be difficult to find. Ann Fox asked how the M5 tourist centre at Sedgemoor Services is financed, to which Cllr Peter Burridge-Clayton said it is run by the County Council. Bob Smart said part of the problem with financing TICs is that there are differing views on them at County and District level.

Roger Keen lashed out at Sedgemoor District Council, saying: "It has been utter gross incompetence and treachery to allow the tourist centre to get into this position" and it added that it should have been better managed by the council.

Liz Lows asked whether a better location for the centre, possibly in Burnham High Street, had been considered.

Jonathan Walter asked whether the centre should charge higher commissions for accommodation bookings in order to boost revenue, while Sonya Fudge asked whether more charges for tourism services could be introduced, in addition to more advertising space at the centre.

Tom Ashton questioned what proportion of Burnham TIC's annual supplies and services cost, amounting to £36,810, is taken up by district council charges. He also asked for "a strong missive" to be sent to Downing Street regarding the cuts in tourism funding. Town Clerk Eileen Shaw cautioned, however, that "trying to change the minds of central government is not a quick job."

Louise Parkin asked whether the district council could match the Town Council's 'lifeline funding' by scrapping rent charges on the tourist centre, to which Mr Bamsey responded that "some budget may be available to help with this."

The new working party was appointed, comprising Cllr Neville Jones from the Town Council, Graham Plant from Burnham Holiday Village, Tom Ashton from Warren Guesthouse, Les Barber from a local travel firm, Bob Nicholson from Somerset Tourist Association, Bob Smart from Cheddar Caves, Jonathan Walter from the Chamber of Trade, Michael Clarke from Pontins, local businessman Roger Keen, Eileen Shaw from the Town Council, Annette Haggett from Sedgemoor's tourist team, and Doug Bamsey from SDC.

Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Jones told Burnham-On-Sea.com: "It was a positive evening and many useful suggestions and ideas were put forward. The working group will be strong and will act as a tourism assembly to make decisions. We will meet in a fortnight's time to take this all forward and I am sure we will find a positive outcome in the end."

Burnham-On-Sea.com first reported last November that the centre's future could be in doubt due to district council funding cuts.

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