A period of up to 15 minutes is allowed for members of the public to make a comment, ask questions or present petitions. Each member of the public has up to 3 minutes to do this. A councillor may also present a petition on behalf of a member of the public.
The Chairman welcomed Mr Rory Shannon to the meeting, and advised that, in line with the Council’s process for managing petitions the petitioner had 3 minutes to present his petition. The Leader of the Council would then accept the petition on behalf of the Council. As the petition is about something over which the Council has no direct control the Leader would receive the petition on behalf of the Council whilst explaining the practicalities surrounding the status of the Artrix at this time. This item is not for debate and once presented and received, Council would move on to the next agenda item.
Mr Rory Shannon thanked everyone for allowing him time to speak at the meeting and present the petition. He provided background information as to the history of the Artrix and where it was situated. It was highlighted that over the years it had hosted theatre, dance performances, cinema screenings, live music as well as comedy from the touring circuit as well as local acts. It had worked with local groups as part of Bromsgrove Arts Alive and provided space for theatre performances, pantomime, classical music, spoken word and local productions with dance schools. The Artrix had an active learning and engagement role in the community over the years including youth theatre and projects for communities of all ages and from all backgrounds. It has a rehearsal room and a dance studio which since 2013 had regularly been used for additional small scale theatre and spoken word performances, together with an art gallery and a café/bar area.
At the beginning of this year the Centre had closed temporarily and then announced that it would cease trading permanently. Mr Shannon hoped that Council would re-consider any decision which it had or may make and consider the option of running the Artrix in house. The online petition, which he had created, had received nearly 5k signatures. What people wanted was for the Artrix to be up and running as soon as possible, with a Council involvement. He had not realised how popular the petition would be, and it highlighted that it was an important part of the town’s cultural infrastructure and he believed that it should be managed and financed properly. It needed the backing of the local Council in order to survive in the current difficult circumstances. He appreciated that now was not the time to start a new business in the arts and hospitality sector, but it was the time for the local authority to pick up the pieces of what was left and put a plan together for the future. It was clear that residents wanted the arts centre to be run by the Council in order to ensure that the same thing did not happen again. Statistics were provided in respect of interest in the petition, all of which was done online, due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The vast majority of signatures were from the local town but also covered a wide part of Worcestershire, which showed that people travelled into Bromsgrove to use the arts centre.
It was highlighted by the Chairman that there had been a number of requests from other Councillors to speak on this item, but he reminded them that this was not a matter for debate and he asked the Leader to respond to the petition.
The Leader responded to the petition by advising that the Artrix was not owned by the Council – it was held on behalf of the Bromsgrove Arts Development Trust(the Holding Trust), a charitable trust whose trustees were appointed by the Council and the Heart of Worcestershire College. The Council was providing the Development Trust with support to enable it to explore sustainable options for the venue, but decisions about the Artrix’s future ultimately rested with the Trust, not the Council. Legally the Council could not just step in as it was an independent charitable trust with independent trustees.
The Council could and was supporting the Holding Trust by facilitating them getting independent advice and support but the process to appoint or otherwise, a provider must be taken by the Holding Trust unfettered by the Council. The petitioner could be assured that, in so far as it was able, the Council was committed to ensuring the Artrix had a sustainable future and this had been evidenced by the support it was giving the Holding Trust and by it purchasing the piano, lighting and other operational items in the building from the Insolvency Practitioner.
The Council thanked the petitioner for the petition and confirmed that it would continue to work with and to support the Holding Trust.
A number of points were raised by Members following presentation of the petition, this included the following:
· Point of clarification, as to whether, from the Leader’s response, this was a refusal of the petition, in respect of what it required. The Leader reiterated that the decision in respect of this rested with the Holding Trust, if they approached the Council further down the line following its investigations, then the situation may change. Currently, the Holding Trust needed to be given the opportunity to carry out its investigations.
· It was questioned whether the petitioner had approached the Council to see what the Council could do, in order for the petition to have better reflected this. It was suggested therefore that this may have misled those that had signed it, as it may have raised hope in finding a solution to the situation.
· Was it correct that the Council owned the building and was it possible for Cabinet to consider a business case as to what the Council could afford to do to assist the Holding Trust in making a decision. The Leader confirmed that although the Council was the freehold owner of the building, again reiterated that the future of the building and its use was for the Holding Trust (and to make recommendations if necessary) and not the Council to resolve.
· It was believed that it was in the Council’s gift to undertake an appraisal of what it could do, if necessary. It was believed that Members would want to know that if it were to come in with an offer of support, it had looked into the matter in enough detail to be in a position to do that.
· People wanted reassurance and it was suggested that Council commit to undertake an appraisal of what was asked within the petition. It was further reiterated that it was not down to the Council to steer this matter, but for the Holding Trust.
· Clarification as to whether, should the Holding Trust approach the Council to run the Artrix, the Council would then be able to run it, should they feel able.
The Monitoring Officer spoke in order to provide the Council with clarification in this matter. She stated that a detailed discussion had been held with all Group Leaders in respect of the petition and it was generally accepted that amongst the Council and as demonstrated by those who signed the petition that it was important that the Council, as far as it possible could supported the Artrix Holding Trust. In terms of being able to manage the situation, as officers and Group Leaders, that rather than refuse the petition, which would have sent a difficult message to the community, it was better to accept it and explain the current position, given the Holding Trust’s very clear responsibilities as Trustees. The Leader was correct when she explained that they had to go through a process, and it was possible for any organisation to put forward proposals to the Holding Trust in the future. The difficulty at the moment was that the Holding Trust needed some professional advice to understand what the options would be. It must be understood that it was not an easy time for this to take place due to the Covid environment and the lack of data, but as explained by the Leader the Council was providing the Holding Trust with funds and support in order to go through that process, with professional support and advice. This was not for debate this evening, the Council was receiving the petition as they are aware of the community’s concerns about the Artirx and the need for it, wherever possible, to receive the support to move forwards. If the Council at any time chose to consider any option in respect of the venue it could do, but currently it had no information to support that and was unable therefore to do so.
It was important that the Council enabled the Holding Trust to carry out its work recognising that at any time in the future it was possible for the Council to consider any options to assist, but those would need to be brought before Council with detailed reports and an understanding of how any costings would be achieved and how the support would be delivered.
A further point of clarification was made in respect of a possible recommendation which had been put forward and Members were reminded that the matter was not for debate or determination this evening.