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Emma Dent Coad - putting the record straight

Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad has again used OHP as a tool in her battles against RBKC. This piece once again quotes figures that are manifestly untrue.

The first time she quoted these figures was in her 'After Grenfell' paper on poverty. A great deal of misinformation has been circulated regarding OHP's costs over the years and the amount of money the council spent. Inflating, misreporting and dramatising the cost of supporting public arts only adds to the sense of outrage, increasing the climate of fear around local authority support for culture. When these arguments appear, little reference is made to expenditure on other services the council provides. We are an easy target.

Emma Dent-Coad's "After Grenfell" paper tied OHP to the disaster and quoted a FOI report from RBKC that purportedly revealed the council had spent "£30 million over 15 years" on the festival. The FOI is referenced and linked at the foot of the report and does not show that at all. It states the outward expenditure, the income during the time period covered by the FOI, and the net spend.

The sum quoted as £30m was in fact, according to the very FOI it was quoting, £6.6m – a bewildering difference of £23.4m. One imagines any form of expenditure on the classical arts is unacceptable to Emma Dent Coad so why misquote the real figure?

In her latest piece, an imaginary £10million has been introduced, apparently an amount spent on improvements on facilities. The truth is that the council spent capital of £1million in 2007 on a new theatre, replacing the structure that had been there for 20 years. She also refers to landscape improvements to the terrace in front of Holland House that were recently undertaken. These improvements we carried out for heritage reasons and are actually intended for the enjoyment of the public who come onto the terrace when we are not using it to enjoy the façade of Holland House. The ground was previously in a fearful state and was dangerous. It is part of a general landscaping project that has also seen the cafeteria seating area expanded and improved. The refurbishments, in the pipeline for over two years, were NOT on behalf of OHP.

Ms Dent Coad also refers to us being 'supposedly independent'. We are fully independent as a charity and have been since 2015.

Facts matter and the facts are these; Between 1989, when Holland Park Theatre presented a variety of arts and performance (theatre, dance, opera), and 2015 when OHP became an independent charity, the festival cost a total net spend to the council of £8.6 million. That is 26 years of arts provision for hundreds of thousands of visitors. We also know from studies that by 2015, the festival generated an average of £1.5million to £2million p.a additional visitor spend for the borough. And if facts matter, so too does language; we are referred to as 'loss- making' but we don't refer to "loss-making libraries" or "loss-making museums". A separation grant of £5million was given from reserves as a final settlement to cover our next few years of independence.This freed up hundreds of thousands of revenue funding on budgets and at the time made financial sense for the council. OHP now has to raise upwards of £3.5million per annum itself, but in the light of Grenfell, this grant, given two years previous to the disaster, came under attack.

Emma Dent Coad's fight for social justice as a councillor at RBKC has been long and she has every right to question spending priorities as she sees them, but she should do so factually. I have known of her for many years and she was always opposed to OHP or any spending on classical arts, and in the recent local elections, even Leighton House Museum came under fire. She stuck to her guns, too, never once accepting the invitations to the festival we would routinely send to elected members of the council. In fact, she once wrote to me to ask that we did not even make the invitation in the first place. She would be highly critical of us and sometimes in language that we found unacceptable, so after an attack on Twitter, in which she furiously criticised us for a flashmob we had done at a large Tesco store as part of the Earl's Court Festival, I asked to meet with her.

She believed we had paid the costs of doing the flashmob, when in fact we had been asked to do it and all the singers had performed for free. Ms Dent Coad clearly had in her mind the idea that we were toffs (even as an officer for so many years, she had never previously met me) but our meeting went some way to correcting that assumption. I have, I told her, a long association with the area. I explained that she should not criticise officers of the council in the way that she did, and it was also unfair to attack the young people who worked for us. She didn't budge in her opposition, and was frustrated that her complaints to council about us were often met with details of our Inspire programme. That Inspire programme, I said, was a heartfelt and genuine project and we would like people in her position to help us take the work we did into the community in the north of the borough. She declined. From a personal point of view, to hear this coming from the left of the political spectrum is a disappointment.

Opera Holland Park is a unique case. We are now an independent charity but until 2015 we were a council service whose staff were employed by the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. In times of austerity, the arts are often caricatured as a "wasteful" use of resources but for most of the time that OHP operated under council control, the art-form itself was the target of ire, regardless of the value the festival offered. We have tried, and continue to try, to challenge and change that perception – and few doubt our status as the most accessible large scale opera festival - but I fear it is an argument that will never gain traction in some quarters.

As many know, we were singled out in the aftermath of Grenfell, and we are still attracting negative attention. The attacks on OHP and the historical role of RBKC in supporting us was high on the list of causal issues for the disaster - a blow that added to our own grief at having lost a valued friend and staff member in the fire.

What we said at the time was that to conflate support for the arts with awful events could cause councils up and down the country to run scared of funding the arts. What if something awful should happen in a council's domain and the cost of maintaining a museum or theatre comes under scrutiny? Throughout history, public funding has suffered from the perception that expenditure on basic amenities and the arts is an "either/or" choice. This leaves those of us working in the arts and who value their contribution to society feeling like robbers, though we often feel precisely the same way as our critics do about the need for stronger social spending and the cohesion that alleviation of poverty brings to a community.

Several years ago when councils were obsessed with Best Value studies, OHP came under examination by independent consultants. They concluded that the council was receiving remarkable value for money from their subsidy of the festival. This didn't of course change the minds of critics but the consultants found several theatres funded by councils up and down the country that were receiving upwards of £650,000 per annum. These venues were small local theatres playing to annual audiences of less than 10,000 in some cases. Consequently, the annual cost of OHP at that time of around £200,000 p.a for 40,000 visitors over ten weeks was judged to be exceptional value for money. Yet today, it strikes me that even the value culture offers is set aside in favour of a binary either/or judgement.

None of this - understandably - will change the minds of those who fight for social equality at a time when social spending is being cut back. It is worth noting that we would agree with Ms Dent Coad's campaign for better pay but we are not the reason for it. People will consider £8.6m – even taken over 26 years and allowing for inflation - as far too much to be spending on opera or the arts when there are people whose basic needs are not being met. But to put that figure into context, just one year of funding for a company like Opera North is in the region of £9million. It is not my job to excuse or explain the decisions of the council over those 26 years, but I worry that our example will lead other councils and public organisations to grow more reluctant to invest in the arts. A fearful mindset has the potential to affect every arts organisation, not just council funded organisations, if those politicians who make decisions on national funding of the arts are unwilling to fight for public culture.


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