Looking forward to genuine information

TONY Crooks (Letters, February 18) is right. Administrations which keep their affairs secret always give the impression they have something to hide - and that impression grows when they try to cover up their failings by peddling propaganda, not just to visitors, but to their own people.

The most extreme example of this, in my experience, was the former USSR. Upon arrival in any Soviet town or city, a visitor would first be driving through grim stretches of urban wasteland to the local ‘Cultural Centre’ - typically a white-coated modernist building - there to be fed with batches of irrelevant statistics.

Visitors would then sometimes be invited to observe a discussion on cultural matters, where a few favoured comrades could ‘have their say’ (though what they said scarcely mattered, as the comrades knew no more about what was really going on than did the visitors, and the state apparatchiks had no intention of ever disturbing the status quo).

It is sad that the local council should remind one of the ways of old Soviet bureaucrats, but it does.

For example, over recent decades tens of millions of pounds of council tax payers’ money has, one way and another, been spent in repairing, maintaining, staffing, programming, managing and promoting our theatres and our theatre production, while our officers - almost uniquely in the UK - have failed to draw down any of the pots of public money which have been available for their regeneration.

Yet the council prefers to present the shocking state of our public theatres as an act of God, rather than a result of their own failure to attract funding, their obdurate refusal to rethink a managerial system plainly unsustainable and their refusal to listen to expert advice - such as the warnings by the Theatres Trust that re-siteing the Towner next to the 50-year-old Congress would irreparably damage its structure.

They are equally secretive about the theaters’ falling attendances. Indeed the former leader of the council no less, last autumn actually had to invoke the Freedom of Information Act in order to discover that the two expensively promoted summer shows, The Sound of Music and Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang, between them played to less than 50 per cent capacity.

The building of the new Towner Gallery tells the same sorry story.

Conceived behind closed doors, it was unveiled with a host of promises - it would bring a five per cent increase in tourism, unsurpassed facilities for community meetings, a boost to Eastbourne’s Conference business, and a great surge in business for the ‘Cultural Quarter’!

It was - to use the phrase so beloved of the local PR men - ‘fantastic news for Eastbourne’.

Now it is open it is clear that although some enjoy its exhibition programme (its current attendance figures are around a quarter those of the local library service) not one of the promised side-benefits has materialised.

Worse, it is, in the words of another former council leader, proving to be a ‘black hole’ in the Eastbourne economy - although there remains a veil of secrecy over its real capital costs (particularly about the £1,400,000 debt incurred through failure to raise the matching grant money) and its escalating running costs.

Indeed until last year the wider public interest was almost totally ignored - but then the gallery found itself automatically long-listed for a New Galleries Award, which involved its community involvement being assessed.

So, in true Soviet fashion, the masses of Eastbourne were then instructed to ‘Love Your Towner’ and vote in droves for ‘their’ gallery. (They didn’t, and it lost).

However the most shameful aspect of the whole Towner debacle has been the way in which the Local History Centre, formerly an integral part of the Towner, has been sidelined.

Members of local historical societies have been fobbed off with a string of lies (that the Lottery funders had said there must be ‘no museum in the cultural quarter’ for instance, or that there was ‘no money available’ for a new town museum).

The result is a disgrace to the town. The Local History Society collection is in a lock-up. The EBC collection, assembled over many years by eminent local historians, languishes in packing cases under the Town Hall.

Eastbourne, uniquely in the South of England, still has no town museum.

So, like Mr Crooks, I welcome the Government’s insistence that local authorities must now come clean about their spending patterns.

But it should not stop there. The coming White Paper on Public Utilities, and Mr Pickles promised new Local Authorities bill, which will set out the ways in which charities are to be funded to take over local cultural assets, should together mean the end of the ridiculous ‘consultation game’.

Hopefully Eastbourne council tax payers can now look forward to taking part in genuine, well-informed strategy meetings about how their money is spent.

John Pick

South Street