Town councillors in Burnham-On-Sea have this week supported a £170,000 budget for the town’s Princess Theatre following a heated debate.
Around 20 members of the public attended a meeting of the council’s Princess Management Committee in the council chambers on Wednesday (December 14th) where varied opinions were expressed on the theatre’s financial plans.
A petition supporting the theatre signed by over 160 local people was handed to the council’s Deputy Mayor, Cllr Sharon Perry.
Last month, it was reported that The Princess Theatre had forecast it would make approximately £50,450 of income during the coming year on expenditure of £240,433, leaving £189,983 to be funded by tax payers or drawn partly from the council’s reserves which prompted a debate about its viability.
However, a revised budget was considered by councillors during Wednesday’s meeting that forecasts higher income of £68,550 during the coming year on expenditure of £239,103, leaving £170,553 to be funded by tax payers or reserves.
This week’s meeting came just a day after the theatre’s Business Development Officer Beccy Armory announced she was resigning, as reported here, however she attended Wednesday’s committee meeting to defend the theatre and its budget proposals.
Several residents and councillors spoke out during Wednesday’s meeting, giving a wide range of views.
Helen Groves said the “council needs to engage more with the public on the costs,” adding that the council’s spending on the theatre is now close to £1million. “The budget cannot be justified. I implore you to consult with residents,” she said.
Alex Turco distributed five chocolate coins to councillors before explaining that they illustrated how three fifths of the council’s budget goes to running costs, one fifth to grants and transport, while one fifth is spent on The Princess. He told councillors: “You have got quite a choice to make – do you want to spend £1 in every £5 on a theatre?”
Lorna Blair, director at Burnham-On-Sea District Pantomime Society, gave her support to the theatre, stating that her group has been running for 52 years and relies on the theatre to host its annual January shows.
“I am trying not to get emotional about what is happening. The shows entertain locals and provide enjoyment. Without the theatre, none of this would be possible. It is a great community asset used by many local groups,” she said.
Carol Hellend, whose family runs the theatre cafe, also spoke in support of the theatre during the meeting and presented the Town Council with a petition of over 160 signatures from residents who support the theatre.
She said the names had been collected in just two days, illustrating the strength of support. She said there is “huge local backing for the theatre. It shouldn’t be just about money. It should be about people and the community.”
A letter from Maureen Phillips, General Secretary of Highbridge Festival of the Arts, was also read to the meeting. She stated: “We are very lucky to have such a local resource. The festival would probably have not continued without such a wonderful performance space.”
She added: “I understand that it must cost the council an enormous sum to keep such a large local building open and safe for public use, however please consider how much poorer the community would be if we let this wonderful resource slip away.”
The theatre’s Business Development Officer Beccy Armory then responded to the debate by starting: “Oh heck, the argument over subsidised culture has been going on since the days of the Puritans way back in the 1600s.”
Beccy added: “We are being asked to demonstrate the value of The Princess as a community asset. You speak to the majority of users – people who walk through the doors, you don’t listen to the minority voices.”
“We are being asked to treble the income over the coming year. I want to read a statement from the DCMS and Arts Council released in 2021 which says: ‘At the heart of any economic evaluation method is the concept of wellbeing or welfare. An evaluation only based on market prices underestimates the full public value of a cultural institution.”
“Since we re-opened last year, we have sold over 12,000 tickets so that means the visitor numbers are now above what they were pre-pandemic. Nearly 30 per cent of those people travelled from outside the TA postcode area – and 2,500 have used our classes and activities.”
Beccy went on to talk about some of the groups who’d used the theatre that day – ranging from a choir with sub groups, to over 200 children for a Christmas show, a health group, and the pantomime society. “That sounds like a thriving arts centre to me!” she said.
She went on to say that figures from “DCMS found that for every £10 spent on a live event, £17 goes back into the local economy. That means more than a quarter of a million pounds has gone back into the local economy since re-opening because The Princess is here – that’s a lot of meals, bottles of water and nights at hotels.”
She added that the unitary council is compiling a cultural strategy which will be a model for town council and that now is not a good time for the council to be stepping away.
Cllr Peter Clayton gave his strong support to Beccy and said she “should be given a chance.” He also questioned whether the objective of “trebling the theatre’s runrate” – which had been set by the council’s Finance Committee – was achievable.
Cllr Clayon added: “Was it plucked from the air? Do we give Beccy a chance?” He went on to say that Beccy has been the “most magnificent employee on the planet” and he urged her to reconsider her resignation and stay.
Cllr Roger Keen said the theatre is “a commuinity asset – it will never be, in any circumstances, an income generator. You look at all the other theatres in this area – they would not survive without subsidies. I cannot agree with the recommendation from the Finance Committee to aim to treble the theatre’s runrate. It is totally unrealistic and it will never, ever, be achieved. You can create a plan to treble business but is it going to work? No. Doubling is realistic, but trebling is not. I would also encourage Beccy to stay on.”
Cllr Mike Murphy added: “I am very sorry that Beccy has resigned – that wasn’t in the plan. It was quite a shock. We always say in business that you can ‘shave the hairs of a gooseberry to try and turn it into a grape’ but you cannot do that because it’s not physically possible. You will get very close. That eludes to budget setting. You have to set targets and motivate others to achieve it – it’s hard work. I don’t think that attitude has prevailed at The Princess – it may not be anyone’s fault – but we have had reservations. We need to somehow make it into a profitable enterprise or it could become an enterprise that gets close to profit. Or has a working loss that we can accept. We currently have a working loss that we find unacceptable. It needs to be acceptable to the local community.”
Cllr James Warren added: “We have got to change the business model of The Princess – that is clear. I have been to several shows at the theatre since joining the council. Only part of what I spent in the theatre goes back into the theatre – that needs to change, whether it’s merchandise or drinks. We also need to generate more income from the space – we can make it work and get the income up. We need to treble the runrate – but is that achievable? No, but we need to improve it and raise it.”
A vote was taken by councillors on whether to accept the Finance Committee’s objective of “trebling the theatre’s runrate” which was not approved.
Instead, they decided that officers at the theatre should endeavour to create a robust business plan to increase the runrate. Several councillors said a doubling of the runrate would be more achievable.
The revised budget of £170,000 was unanimously supported by councillors.
The committe’s support of the revised budget will be considered by the Town Council’s Finance committee in January when a final decision is expected to be made.