Fringe Box



Opinion: The Demise of The Guildford Philharmonic Strikes An Undemocratic Note

Published on: 24 Sep, 2012
Updated on: 24 Sep, 2012
By Julian Lyon

I have, for a long time now, been an active observer and regular letter-writer on matters about which I feel strongly.  I tend not to hold back and I am not afraid of being critical when I believe criticism is due.

On three occasions I have addressed the council’s Corporate Improvement Scrutiny Committee on the subject of the future of Guildford Philharmonic and on each occasion a different presentation has been made of what amounts to the same pre-made decision; and on each occasion the discussion in the room has been distinctly different.

I first went to a Philharmonic concert at the age of five or six and sat with my parents and siblings in the back row of the old Civic Hall balcony where, hopefully, we did not disturb too many people as we yawned and fidgeted our way through some quite tough music.  Going regularly to professional classical music concerts has helped shape the way I am (although that may not be the best advertisement for it!), and has made me passionate about Guildford Philharmonic.

More than this, though, I am passionate about democracy and transparency in all levels of Government – partly because I have seen the mediocrity that stems form incestuous debate behind closed doors, and partly because I believe that the more engaged communities are, the better able we are to make sure that everything we treasure is still available for our children and grandchildren.

Before or during the construction of G-Live, a decision was made by Councillors on the Executive that the Philharmonic would close by Summer 2012, budgets having been squeezed very tightly around a concert season that, since the demise of the Civic Hall, had been spread around churches and the Cathedral and had scaled down from full-scale orchestral concerts to more chamber music offerings – always to a very high standard and with the staff always keeping a smiling welcome to all concert-goers.

The G-Live contract was negotiated in such a way (through incompetence or by design) that, whereas visiting orchestras were commissioned to play at the hall (fees being paid by G-Live), the Philharmonic was left to pay rental fees for the hall, cover box office and other expenses and receive less than a third of the typical orchestral performance fee towards meeting its budget.

So the £328,000 per year, paid to HQ Theatres, includes subsidies towards the other orchestras’ fees but at the cost of the demise of the Philharmonic. This will reduce GBC spending by a net £98,500 per year. (The current subsidy is £190,000 per year but closing the Philharmonic would still require the council to absorb £41,000 of allocated internal costs plus around £50,000 to be made available for contributions to other musical organisations – details to be determined in due course).

In 2011-12, Guildford Philharmonic will have played to around ten thousand people. Many of these attended events sponsored by other organisations, extending the Philharmonic’s reach much wider.  The average subsidy per seat was, consequently, around £19 per seat – much higher than is sustainable but considerably lower than the £46 per seat that the Chief Executive chose to adopt in all his reporting to councillors.  Mr Hill’s figure disregarded non-GBC sponsored concerts and, whilst it may be appropriate to show it separately, the full information should have been available to the committee.

In April, the debate in the Scrutiny Committee was lively but punctuated by unusual interventions by the Chief Executive. One was to to advise the committee that it was not allowed to set up a subcommittee (not my understanding of Section 8 of the Council’s constitution) to investigate potential solutions for the Philharmonic. Another was to dubiously interrupt a councillor.

In June, Councillor Mansbridge (on behalf of Councillor Powell) gave an efficient summary of the progress to date and the next steps.  There was barely a discussion about the matter.

On September 20th the agenda item included the recommendation that the Philharmonic be closed.  There was at least a healthy debate but it seemed to be taken for granted that the Philharmonic could not survive. It was very clear, and Councillor Mansbridge was careful to reinforce it, that the councillors could and should speak their minds.  Democracy may just have been well served by the cathartic process of discussing the provision of classical music in Guildford.

It remains, in my view, a tragedy and a travesty that the mood and the latent desire of councillors to get involved in April was so cruelly and needlessly shattered by the Chief Executive’s need for control.  The decision, that had already been made in a closed room such a long time ago, may have had to be reconsidered and may even have been reversed if those annoying councillors had been given a free hand!  I firmly believe it was the events of that evening that has served to assassinate the Philharmonic.

I do recognise, however, that the Philharmonic might still have lost its life as a result of a full debate and a proper open and fair engagement with the community, but at least it would have been the will of the community and not the secretive process that has ensured it would be killed off.

This absence of community involvement is reminiscent of the brick wall the Guildford Vision Group has been coming up against.  My own view is that the common thread is an attitude that starts in the Chief Executive’s office.

Democracy starts and ends in the community in which the votes are cast.  Control is not power in a democracy – except for short periods at a time – it is engagement that is empowerment.  All of our councillors should remember that, and in particular the future Council Leader.

Click here to see Cllr Richard Billington’s other view of this subject.

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