Arts organisation 'secret society' claim

A LEADING local politician has compared an arts organisation that recently received a £2million lifeline of public cash to a “secret society” after he was told to leave its annual general meeting because it was to be held in private.

By Roddy Ashworth

A LEADING local politician has compared an arts organisation that recently received a £2million lifeline of public cash to a “secret society” after he was told to leave its annual general meeting because it was to be held in private.

Tim Young, leader of the Labour group at Colchester Borough Council, made his comments after being denied access to a board meeting of registered charity firstsite at Colchester Town Hall.

Mr Young described the decision to bar both him and other members of the public from the meeting as “scandalous”, especially as firstsite has recently required a large injection of additional public money to complete an ongoing £17.8m project.

The organisation runs an art gallery at the Minories in Colchester and is behind the controversial new Visual Arts Facility (VAF) in the town, which was recently hit with a £2m shortfall in funding.

Although firstsite is not responsible for £1.3m of the overspend - because the actual building project is being run by Colchester Borough Council - the organisation failed to reach its own fundraising target for the VAF by around £700,000.

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The deficit has been met by various public bodies, including the council, the East of England Development Agency (EEDA), Arts Council England and Essex County Council.

Mr Young said: “What sort of organisation is it that bars members of the public from its AGM? What have they got to hide?

“They are running a project that is costing tens of millions of pounds of public money and yet the public aren't allowed to sit in on their meetings and hear their deliberations. It's scandalous.

“Are they running some sort of secret society?”

He claimed the project was “haemorrhaging” money and he was unsurprised it had “so little public support”.

Yesterday, however, firstsite director Kath Wood defended the decision to hold the meeting in private and said: “We do not have to have our meetings in public. We have checked with the Charity Commission.

“It is not a secret organisation. There are two borough councillors on the trust. I do not think we did anything wrong.

“The new chairman of the trust, Chris Paveley, offered to meet Mr Young the next day, but he refused.”

And Nigel Chapman, one of the borough councillors who sits on the board, said: “I do not think it is a secretive organisation. As well as borough there are county council representatives on it.

“It is a pretty broad grouping of people.”