Theatre defends £1.5m grant request

By Liz HearnshawTHEATRE bosses have defended a request for £1.5million of taxpayers' money, describing the bid as a “reasonable” amount that would support a “great local resource”.

By Liz Hearnshaw

THEATRE bosses have defended a request for £1.5million of taxpayers' money, describing the bid as a “reasonable” amount that would support a “great local resource”.

Responding to criticisms the Theatre Royal in Bury St Edmunds already received a large enough slice of the public purse, arts officials said a “well-crafted” project to restore the playhouse to its former Georgian glory would benefit the whole community.

Judith Shallow, chairman of the board of management, said members were waiting “anxiously” for a decision on the bid from St Edmundsbury Borough Council, which could transform the £6.4m refurbishment plan into a reality.

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But opponents to the move have described the request as “over the top and taking the biscuit” as the theatre already receives an annual grant from the council of £88,400.

They felt awarding the grant would have a huge effect on residents' Council Tax bills.

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“I feel that it is slightly premature to judge what the council is going to decide and we are awaiting its formal decision anxiously,” said Mrs Shallow.

“We believe we have got a very well-crafted project here, which will have significant benefits to all the stakeholders, including the borough and National Trust.

“This scheme will have an impact on future tourism and the festivals we can put on at the restored theatre. The project will provide 77,000 theatregoers with a better experience.”

She added: “I hope the council will be able to support us and we are working very hard to match and exceed the level of funding in other areas.

“We are waiting for a response from a number of trust funds and are approaching everybody and anybody as this is such a significant amount of money to raise.”

Mrs Shallow said the council's annual grant to the theatre was the equivalent of less than 10% of the playhouse's annual turnover - a figure she described as “not a huge amount”.

She added: “Other theatres throughout the country are supported much more strongly by their local councils.

“We think it is reasonable to ask the borough to assist us and we think this is a reasonable sum to ask it to contribute as the theatre is a great local resource.

“We do a huge amount of work in the community, such as educational programmes and tours, and we encourage access as widely as possible.

“This is at the heart of what we do and we try to put on shows to appeal to a big audience, ranging from high opera to stand-up comedy.”

But businessman and former council leader, Mike Brundle, described the figure as “taking the biscuit”.

He added: “I think that asking the ratepayer to fork out that amount is rather over the top.

“I am all for supporting our local amenities, including the Theatre Royal, and we already give them grant-aided money each year - with which I do not have a problem.

“But asking for that sort of money really is a bit much, especially when there are arts councils and other bodies specially set up to deal with provincial theatres.

“I am all in favour of the borough maintaining its existing annual grant, but anything over and above that really takes the biscuit.”

And Allan Jones, leader of the council's Liberal Democrat group, echoed his thoughts, saying: “I believe the theatre should be given a grant, but I do not feel the council can afford £1.5m.

“I think smaller figures would be better as we are very mindful of keeping the rates down.”

The council will discuss the bid at a meeting tonight, while a final decision on the grant will be made next month.

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