New row over theatre's funding bid

By Liz HearnshawA CONTROVERSIAL plan to negotiate over a £1.5million handout to a historic theatre has been put on hold amid strong opposition from councillors.

By Liz Hearnshaw

A CONTROVERSIAL plan to negotiate over a £1.5million handout to a historic theatre has been put on hold amid strong opposition from councillors.

They claimed St Edmundsbury Borough Council had refused to consult the public over the Theatre Royal's bid for money to fund an ambitious regeneration project and called for greater transparency after a series of debates were held behind-closed-doors.

But bosses at the Bury St Edmunds playhouse have again defended the £1.5m bid, saying it represented good value for money in return for community projects and cultural excellence promoted by the theatre.

The fight against the handout - which the council has promised will have no effect on Council Tax bills - has been led by David Nettleton who, along with four other councillors, has now called-in the cabinet's decision to negotiate with the theatre for further consideration and debate.

“I pleaded with the cabinet to consult the public on this issue, but was turned down flat,” said Mr Nettleton.

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“The sum requested is a lot of money and by asking just one voter in 50 what they think, the borough council could become aware of public opinion on this issue. Asking Jo and Joe Public is essential given the huge amount involved.”

Mr Nettleton estimated the grant to the theatre would cost each Council Tax payer about £1.60 each year for the next 25 years.

The issue will now be discussed by the council's overview and scrutiny committee on January 19, but theatre bosses were still confident a deal can be agreed.

Theatre Royal director, Colin Blumenau, said: “As far as we are concerned, we are still very much in negotiation with the council. If I thought £1.5m was too much, we would not have asked for it.

“I am not unsympathetic about the problems that the council have in terms of the tax levels, but the theatre gives a balance to the provision the council is bound to provide.

“What we are proposing to do makes the borough very special. There is not another borough in the country that offers this kind of potential facility.”

He added: “We have a very strong case for becoming an important cultural and educational institution.

“There is a temptation to accuse us of being elitist, but this is not a sensible accusation because we do a lot of unseen work in the community.

“We have a very carefully put together fundraising strategy, but it is very much a house of cards - if you take out one bit, there is a danger the whole thing could topple.”

Mr Blumenau said the playhouse would not approach neighbouring councils, such as Mid Suffolk and Babergh District Council, for cash until a deal with St Edmundsbury had been agreed.

A spokesman for St Edmundsbury Borough Council said: “The council was exploring ways in which we could help the theatre without being a burden on taxpayers.

“There will now be no talks with the theatre until the issue has been considered by the overview and scrutiny committee.”

liz.hearnshaw@eadt.co.uk

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