Westacre Theatre bosses slam council over Guildhall subsidy

Westacre Theatre stock pic
Westacre Theatre stock pic

Trustees of a West Norfolk community theatre have criticised council chiefs after they admitted taxpayers are subsidising Lynn’s St George’s Guildhall while it is closed.

Officials from the Westacre Theatre say they are worried about the potential impact on their operations when their current funding from West Norfolk Council ends.

But the authority says it has no choice but to reduce the grants it provides, because of the pressure on its own finances.

The issue has escalated after the borough council’s deputy leader, Elizabeth Nockolds, revealed last month that the Guildhall is currently receiving over £100,000 a year in subsidy from the taxpayer.

The King Street venue is now the subject of funding bids worth around £3.2 million for a renovation project, after an application was submitted to the Arts Council last week.

A separate bid for around £2.7 million of funding had already been submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Mrs Nockolds said the current level of subsidy for the Guildhall “will have to change.”

She argued the bids would allow a business plan to be developed as part of the project, which the authority hopes will enable a wider range of events to take place there.

But the subsidy admission has angered Westacre officials, who say they have been told their annual grant from the authority, of just over £6,000, will end altogether after March 2021.

They claim the cut is being imposed despite them adhering to the terms of a service level agreement struck with the council.

And they fear the loss of that funding will make it harder for them to attract other external sponsors and could be “extremely harmful” to the venue’s future prospects.

Will Smith, chairman of the Westacre Arts Foundation, said: “If indeed West Norfolk Council is not intending to continue with their financial support of the Guildhall to the present extent, then I would seriously suggest that just a proportion of the money saved could be redirected to the Westacre Theatre.

“We are now the only venue in West Norfolk to offer such a wide range of worthy productions, events and activities.

“Salami slicing our much needed grant of £6,300 will clearly not balance the council’s books where spending is in the millions.

“However, a relatively modest increase in our external funding would make a huge difference.”

But Mrs Nockolds said the council had no choice but to go on covering the costs of maintaining the Guildhall.

She also suggested Westacre could become a beneficiary of the council’s plan to set up a new lottery to help local good causes, if it is implemented.

She said: “I am always impressed with Westacre Theatre and I recognise the benefits which residents of West Norfolk and of course Breckland area receive from it.

“For many years I have always been very happy in offering a small grant, but this has had to be reviewed along with all of our SLAs.

“Our own funding has been reduced significantly and we are having to look at how the limited funding we have is spent.

“The Guildhall and Galleries are leased from the National Trust and the council has a responsibility to keep the buildings maintained and pay the business rates even if they are not in use.

“The buildings are available for hire which means at times we have heating bills and staff costs. These are not option costs.

“If the council is able to redevelop the area with the aid of grants from the HLF and the Arts Council, and find different uses for the complex, eventually the complex will no longer need subsidies from the taxpayer.”