STAUNCH defence of Chichester Festival Theatre has come from county councillors in the wake of criticism over the way it is funded.
Labour councillor Michael Jones, from Crawley, accused a Chichester-based County Hall of ‘favouritism’ in giving £4.5m to the theatre since 2001, and called for a pledge to end all future subsidy in a fiery debate by county councillors.
His words led to the debate at a county council meeting last Friday as angry Conservative Lib Dem members hailed the theatre as a ‘regional and national asset’.
Speaking at the meeting Mr Jones accused the Conservative-lead council of ‘getting it’s priorities wrong’ in spending £200,000 on the festival theatre annually, reduced to £85,000 in 2011.
He also criticised the £1.5m grant by the council’s Kick Start scheme towards the recent theatre refurbishment, which has just been completed at an overall cost of £22m, calling it an ‘inappropriate use of the funds’.
Mr Jones said: “Every time the county council reduces funding to the theatre because they know it is indefensible not too, they find another way to give it all back to the festival theatre and more besides.
“On this occasion the Kick Start money being the equivalent of giving the festival theatre its most recent annual grant for a further 19 years.
“This in the face of millions being cut from adult services, cuts that would impact on the resilience of our fire and rescue service, constant reductions in staffing, losing valuable expertise and service provision being reduced to a dial in service.”
Adding that it was ‘all done with ruthlessness, even a gung-ho attitude by this current Tory leadership’, Mr Jones said: “It shows the favour sometimes shown towards Chichester with the other districts being treated as periphery by comparison.”
Mr Jones’s speech was met by an angry response from members in the chamber.
Calling the motion an ‘absolute load of rubbish’, Michael Brown, Conservative cabinet member for finance said: “Michael Jones talks about wasteful cuts to vital frontline services.
“What we’ve actually made massive cuts to is not frontline services but we’ve cut waste, we’ve cut duplication, we’ve cut inefficiency, that’s what this organisation has cut over the last three years, and that’s what we will continue to do.
Defending the Kick Start grant he said: “The £1.5m we gave was absolutely crucial in unlocking a further £12m grant from Arts England (towards the CFT refurbishment) so I don’t think we should apologise for this, it’s done an astounding amount of good.”
Mr Brown said recent surveys done by the University of Portsmouth and Reading University found that the festival theatre brought between £12.5m and £17.5m into the local economy and provided for the equivalent of 356 full-time jobs.
He added that an agreement to end the annual £85,000 funding made Mr Jones’s motion ‘completely irrelevant’ and praised the CFT for making the West Sussex Youth Theatre a ‘runaway success’ since taking it over.
Lib Dem councillor Dr James Walsh then slammed Mr Jones’s notion that because the council didn’t own the theatre it should not support it as a ‘ludicrous argument’.
“The Liberal Democrats have often found common cause with Labour on our attacks in reduction of frontline spending,” Dr Walsh said. “That is not the debate that is here today, the debate is about CFT, and you don’t have to own a building in order to support it.
“The theatre is both a regional and national asset. It is not just a small provincial theatre, it has a wold-wide reputation and brings into West Sussex visitors from all over the world.”