It’s a question of trusts for venues and parks

It’s a question of trusts for venues and parks
Published Date: 06 May 2009

IMAGINE Rihanna getting priority over the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to perform at the Usher Hall or a regular programme of commercial events on all the city’s parks. Sweeping changes being considered in the Capital would see not-for-profit trusts take over the running of many of our parks, galleries and concert halls from the city council.
The idea raises the prospect of more investment in run-down facilities, less public subsidy and perhaps bigger-name performers being lured to Edinburgh. But it also raises fears about potential price rises and less public accountability.

Consultan ts PMP have told the council it should seriously consider setting up a trust to run its arts venues.

The move would see the operation of popular venues, such as the Assembly Rooms and Ross Bandstand, transferred out of direct council control.

Operating as a not-for-profit trust, the new organisation would use its charitable status to slash costs and bid for a greater share of private and lottery funding.

Senior council officials have suggested the model could also be applied to the city’s parks, with maintenance and event management transferred to a trust.

The main drive behind the suggestion is inevitably money. The trusts would cut down on duplication, saving expensive overheads, and hopefully lead to more innovative thinking from managers who would be under greater pressure to fend for themselves economically.

But what would the move mean for the tens of thousands of city residents who visit the city’s parks or leisure facilities every week?

Well, possibly a cheaper council tax bill for a start. Trusts for cultural and sporting facilities have already been established in Glasgow and Fife, which have saved them millions through the avoidance of non-domestic rates – charities are exempted for 80 per cent of them – and picking up private and lottery investment.

There is also the prospect of new investment in ageing facilities. In Glasgow, the council’s trust made a £2m surplus in its first year, allowing a £1.2m investment in new gym equipment for its leisure centres which the local authority says it would not have been able to make under the old council-run set-up.

If the experience in Glasgow is mirrored here, council-owned museums and galleries would collect around £50,000 a year in extra visitor donations thanks to their charitable status.

The other likely outcome is more popular programming as the trusts look to maximise their incomes. That could mean things like more pop concerts at the Usher Hall to attract extra sell-out crowds, and Leith Links and other parks being hired out for commercial events in the same way as the Meadows and Inverleith Park.

The specialist trusts would be expected to build up more expertise and contacts within their fields which might accelerate such changes.

But there are dangers with the trust model, as has been seen with the city’s biggest existing not-for-profit body, Edinburgh Leisure.

Established in 1998, Edinburgh Leisure has a turnover of £23m and, despite the annual wobble when it knocks on the council’s door for a funding top-up, is generally regarded as a success story.

Yet it has introduced above-inflation price increases to help balance its books in recent years. There is no knowing whether this would have happened if the leisure centres were directly run by the council, but pressure on councillors to resist it would have been significant.

The move in Glasgow has been considered a success despite an initial union attempt to block the move in the courts.

Visitors to the facilities involved should not expect a revolution, though, if Edinburgh takes the plunge, says Glasgow City Council’s Colin Edgar.

“There was resistance at first but the motivation behind this was to free up the different centres and museums to make decisions themselves, be more businesslike and to make it easier to attract external funding,” he says.

“A series of checks are in place, the board of CSG is mainly made up of councillors, and of course the council still owns all of the buildings and parks affected.

“The customers should not have seen any big differences, it was a deliberate decision to brand the facilities as council facilities because it is important that people paying council tax see they are getting the sport and cultural assets in return.”

The move would mean less upheaval in Edinburgh, as Edinburgh Leisure and the Festival City Theatres Trust – which runs the King’s and Festival Theatre – already exist.

Lindsay Robertson, the council’s arts manager, says the PMP study has provided food for thought.

“We need to look at the options but certainly Edinburgh would not be in a position to make the savings Glasgow has made because the sporting venues have already been transferred into a trust,” she says.

“We need to be really sensitive to Edinburgh’s needs and its standing as one of the best cultural cities in the world.

“The PMP study shows we are in not too bad shape but improvements can be made and that is where we go now – that is looking at how venues are operated, which in includes looking at the trust model, but I don’t think there will be wholesale changes.”

The move comes as city leaders are looking at how efficiencies can be made across public services, mainly focusing on cutting backroom costs, such as duplicate administrative staffs in theatres, galleries and museums.

In that light, it is difficult to see what justification there could be for not pressing ahead with some kind of move towards more trusts running city facilities.

As long as a sizeable proportion of any savings made are reinvested in the city’s parks and cultural venues then it should create winners all round.

Council-owned venues or parks which could be transferred to a new not-for-profit trust:

• Assembly Rooms (top left)
• Ross Bandstand
• The Meadows (top right)
• Usher Hall (bottom right)
• King’s Theatre
• City Arts Centre
• Church Hill Theatre
• Leith Links
• Festival Theatre
• Museum of Childhood
• Museum of Edinburgh
• The Scott Monument
• The Writers’ Museum
• Nelson Monument
• Lauriston Castle
• The People’s Story

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