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The future of the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra was left unresolved following last night’s fractious council meeting of the scrutiny committee attended by the council Leader Tony Rooth and Chief Executive David Hill. All that could be agreed was that Jennifer Powell, lead Councillor for Culture and Leisure and the Chief Executive would report back in June.
Observers found the borough council meeting to be rambling and, at times, chaotic with separate conversations taking place at the same time. Chairman Cllr Tony Phillips (LibDem Onslow) struggled to navigate the meeting to any sort of agreed conclusion.
David Hill’s report, hurriedly prepared following the suspension and resignation of Jim Miles, the Strategic Director whose responsibility the issue had been, faced criticism. Mr Hill appeared at times defensive and at times exasperated as circular arguments continued. At one stage this led to him cutting across Cllr Caroline Reeves as she was speaking, causing a watching Alderman, Bernard Parke, to utter very audibly an impromptu: “Let the councillor speak!”
The two full time orchestra employees Nicola Goold and Claire Lister, whose jobs are on the line, were notable by their absence from the meeting.
Proceedings commenced with statements from members of the public. Julian Lyons, a trustee of the South East Music Trust.
“Over the past few years, I believe the Philharmonic has been treated quite shabbily… its budget has been progressively cut… to the extent that the overheads make up an increasingly large amount of the per-ticket subsidy.
“…we are in a position where the Philharmonic will have no programme of concerts for 2012/13 … This is tantamount to closing the Philharmonic as a staffed operation by default.
“This paper [David Hill's report] when I read it, and this process, as played out to date, have the feel of an ambush and a fait accompli. I don’t like it but I recognise some of the underlying reasons.
“The premise is that £190,000 annual funding for the Philharmonic is not sustainable in this period of austerity.
“The future should not be defined by this flawed report but the Philharmonic staff need to and deserve to understand how this hiatus and the future process will affect their positions.”
Alderman Gordon Bridger then added: ” My first question is why G Live has introduced classical concerts from continental countries when we have our own perfectly competent orchestra?
“Before you can make a decision you must have a fair presentation of the facts. This report does not do this.
” We are one of the wealthiest communities in Britain and indeed the world and it is perfectly proper for us to indulge in a certain amount of artistic luxury. It is for you however to decide what the level should be but based on a proper presentation of the facts.”
The committee was then addressed by the Chief Executive. He said that he had had to piece together the report at short notice, in the absence of “Jim” [Miles], and one of his main objectives was to resolve the uncertainty that existed.
“Members of my staff have had it stated to them, from a number of sources, that the Executive have already taken a decision to shut down the Guildford Philharmonic Orchestra and that is not true. It is not fair that their situation has been made subject to ill informed public debate. I have met the staff and apologised to them personally for the misinformation they have been given.”
The report, he said, was attempt to dispel some myths about the situation, for instance that the whole orchestra was on the council’s permanent payroll.
“Guildford is unique, there are two council run professional orchestras in the country. Guildford and Worthing… Councillor Powell and I are aware that there has been an ongoing speculation on the sustainability of the current arrangements given the pressures on the council budget.”
He continued that that conclusions on the future of the orchestra had not been reached but he was aware that the committee felt that they were sometimes presented with a deal that had been “stitched up” so it was right that this report only reflected work in progress.
Comparisons, he said, had been made with what happened under David Watts, a previous Chief Executive, but that was when there had been acceptance of bigger deficit. A decision would have to be taken by the council whether or not they were prepared to continue to subsidise the GPO at existing levels. It would be difficult to run it in the same way if the budget was cut further as many of the overheads represented the staff costs of the permanent staff.
Cllr Jennifer Powell (Con Clandon & Horsley) agreed that they, David Hill and her, had consulted but did not wish for others to have obtained the impression they had spent hours together. She thanked the guest speakers and reminded all present that she knew exactly who supported the GPO by attending concerts and who did not: “So don’t think you can pass me by on that one,” she said, confirming that she too believed that the current model was unsustainable.
Cllr Reeves (Lib Dem Friary & St Nicolas) said that Nicola Gould had been treated very badly and had been left with the Sword of Damocles hanging over her. It had been said that GBC sold be run like a business but even in business she would not have been treated so.’
It was here that the Chief Executive interrupted to say, whilst he understood councillors had their own views he had already apologised sincerely to affected staff, and asked that councillors refrained from commenting on staffing matters.
Cllr Reeves continued, unruffled, to say that she did not know why it had taken so long to deal with the issue. Whatever needs to be done, needs to be done sooner rather than later otherwise “… we will be accused of deliberately letting the GPO die…”
Cllr Pauline Searle (LibDem Stoughton) commented that with only four provisional bookings made for the next season was not the future of the GPO already being compromised? David Hill responded to say that whilst he was not an expert he did not think that that was a major problem.
Cllr Anne Meredith (Lib Dem Friary & St Nicolas) suggested that the overall provision of music should be considered not just classical. Cllr Powell assured her that she was preaching to the converted. Provision for other types of music was already occurring , although not necessarily by the Borough Council. “A sustainable future is what we are looking for.” The discussion, she said, should not be just about whether the GPO is being got rid of or not. “We know how much the borough has benefiited from a high standard of music.”
Declaring a catholic taste in things cultural, encompassing Guilfest, Tony Rooth, Council Leader (Con Pilgrims) said that the Executive had not decided to close down the GPO and had not yet reached a decision. Questions could be asked about the different levels of per capita subsidy given to other areas of the arts in Guildford, for instance the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre.
He said: “I do not believe that the GPO has been treated shabbily, if they had they would not be here any more.” There are many ways that provision of classical music can be made than the current model. G Live is already providing classical music, he said, whether that would be considered sufficient was a question for the near future.
Cllr Terence Patrick (Con Send), the current Mayor of Guildford said that during his year as Mayor he had been impressed with the number of those who attended GPO concerts including a recent sellout performance at G Live where the programme was made up up popular classical music. He concluded, “Guildford is going to really lose something vital if we make the wrong decision here.”
As the chairman tried to bring the meeting to a close David Hill commented that a solution, particularly a commercial decision could not be arrived at by committee. Offers by the committee to provide a small working group to advise and consult were resisted and instead the Chief Executive and Cllr Powell offered to simply report back to the next Scrutiny committee meeting, in June, when they will have gathered more information and developed the options.
As discussion on the subject all appeared to be over, Cllr Pauline Searle commented that the current position had been arrived at because of stories, perhaps ill founded stories, that had been circulated. There needed to be more transparency and honesty. Councillors needed to be kept up to date and by hearing what was really happening, not stories circulating from within.
David Hill responded by saying: “I have very limited resource to do this. We will work as quickly as possible on this. Cllr Searle is right. Stories have been told and that is the reason I have put this report in front of you. I am not the person who has done this.
“I am extremely disappointed about the number of confidential reports that have been, apparently, in circulation. We will do our best to be timely and to be respectful to our staff. He could not, he said commit to anything more.
See also previous article ‘Questions Raised Over the Future Funding of the Guildford Philharmonic‘