Worthing’s taxpayer-funded theatres set for another six-figure overspend

The Connaught Theatre
The Connaught Theatre

Senior councillors have insisted they have not given up on curbing continued overspends in the budget for Worthing’s publicly-funded theatres.

The facilities had a budget of just over £1.4million in 2016/17 – but spending is expected to exceed the figure by £132,000.

Next year’s theatres budget will rise by £160,000 – equivalent to the income that would be generated by a two per cent council tax rise.

Scrutinising cabinet members over next year’s budget on Thursday, Conservative councillor Luke Proudfoot said: “Have you given up on reining in Worthing Theatres’ excessive spending?

“Rather than throwing more money at the theatres, is it not time for a change of policy and the part or total sale of the theatres into the private sector?”

Mr Proudfoot said a one per cent council tax rise would raise £83,000 for Worthing Borough Council.

He asked whether the extra cash for the theatres could be used to instead freeze council tax.

But cabinet member for resources Mark Nolan said the two figures did not go hand in hand.

“The reason for the increase is naturally to expect an increase in pay inflation, the impact on pensions and the 2017 business rates re-evaluation,” he said.

“It’s simply a matter of looking at the theatres budgets and how we manage the risk.”

The joint overview and scrutiny committee was told the overspend would mean the theatres had come in over budget for the fifth year running.

But Tory councillor Steve Waight, former cabinet member for resources, could not recall them ever being under budget.

Councillor Heather Mercer, cabinet member for customer services, staunchly defended the theatres team’s performance.

Record pantomime performance, rising film and comedy show revenues were among the successes.

She said operational costs had been cut by half since 2013/14, when the overspend had been nearly £500,000.

“I don’t hear anyone praising them for doing that,” she said.

Mrs Mercer described the overspend as ‘slight’, several times referring to ‘unrealistic budget targets’ in the five-year business plan.

The plan, she said, would soon be replaced by a new three-year model, while councillors and officers were meeting monthly to scrutinise spending.

Mr Nolan said: “It is heading in the right direction because the overspend continues to go down but we accept that is not the same as meeting a budget.

“We are not ignoring the issue.”

Leader Dan Humphreys acknowledged there were issues, highlighting the underachievement of catering income.

He said the situation had improved following the appointment of a new catering manager – and he pointed to the importance of investing in culture in driving tourism.

But he did not think the budgets ‘were as unrealistic as some of us would think’.

“It has been a mixed picture over the years but there have been some successes and there have been some shortfalls,” he said.

The Connaught, Worthing Pavilion and Assembly Hall come under the council’s theatres budget.

The 2017/18 budget, to begin in April if approved by full council, earmarks £1,584,870 for the facilities. In 2014/15, the budget was £1,225,550.

Speaking after the meeting, Mr Proudfoot said: “I fully understand councillor Nolan’s point that the proposed increase in council tax is not simply a result of the increase in Worthing Theatres’ budget but will be used to help fund vital front line services.

“However I still believe that the extra funding for the theatres is money that could be better used elsewhere in more important services.”