Visitors to Brighton’s Museum and Art Gallery have dropped by over a half since introduction of a £5 entry fee for non-residents. Just 33,000 visitors went to the Museum and Art Gallery between 5th May and 5th August. This compares to 71,000 in 2014 and 87,000 in 2013.
It was no surprise to me to read of this reduction. In May, I wrote in the Argus, of my horror at the decision to introduce fees, given that, in London and in almost all other parts of the country, such basic services are free. I also highlighted how difficult the council had made it for residents to gain ‘free’ entry, by requiring them, at each visit, to queue, provide proof of residence and be checked against a computer list.
At the time, I thought the queues for residents were a glitch in the system and that very soon the Council would allow residents to move freely in and out – for example, by showing a library card. However, no changes were made. In subsequent weeks, I queued a few times, then gave up. In the 40 years I’ve lived in Brighton, I’ve probably visited the museum on average about four or five times a month. Now I don’t go at all.
Back in May, I had no idea the Council planned to introduce charges. Still less did I know that, before making this decision, the Council officials predicted that a 50 – 75% reduction in visitors would result. I find it extraordinary that Council officials and elected members – whose job is to protect our heritage – proceeded with this policy in the full knowledge that many thousands fewer people would benefit from facilities previous generations have taken for granted. I recall no publicity about this and no debate.
Councillors recently warned council officials against using falling attendances to justify reducing opening hours. This immediately made me fear that this was exactly what was planned – particularly as I was subsequently contacted by an anonymous informant who told me that council plans were well advanced to put the museum service and art gallery out to tender and to close the much-loved Hove Library. An Argus investigation has now confirmed this – almost certainly well before the Council intended the information to get out.
My cynical soul tells me that it’s a classic tactic to deliberately run public services down, suggest they are ‘failing’, then use this as an excuse to cut them and even sell valuable assets, while putting potentially profitable services out to tender to private companies – often leaving insufficient time for the public to examine proposals and mount protests.
I fully understand that the museums and art services need to make £200,000 savings this financial year. However, this is a tiny amount when set against the millions that the Council this year failed to collect in parking fees. Coin Co International (CCI), the company contracted to collect the fees, collapsed earlier this year owing the council £3.2 million. The loss was not insured and the Council is believed to be unlikely to recoup more than £25,000.
CCI was paid almost £300,000 a year to collect more than £11 million cash from Brighton and Hove’s parking meters and £8 million cash from Council offices and schools. The company was allowed to hold the funds for up to ten days, enabling it to earn interest in addition to its fees to the Council. The money should have been paid into a separate account by CCI, but was not. The debt was allowed to build up over several months and at one point reached £4.7 million. Little action seems to have been taken to protect the Council. This is despite the fact the council’s previous cash collections contractor, Estate Security Southern, also collapsed.
There are two things which strike me about these events. The first is that, even in a time of austerity and threatened cuts, officials seem not to be held accountable for catastrophic loss of public funds. The second is that serious reductions to key public services have been planned in secret, without any regard for public consultation. This is no way to run local democracy.
I call on councillors of all parties and committees to act to protect our heritage and key services and to consult fully and in public. Above all, I ask them to realise Council officials are the public’s servants not its masters – and to hold them to account when they lose our money and threaten our services.