Tuesday, October 13, 2009

You'd miss us if we were gone!

Some of the response to our exclusive revelations about the perilous state of the finances at De Montfort Hall was surprising to say the least.

Take this comment left on our website by Sean, of Leicester:
Once again, the Mercury, printed from Nottingham, shows that is only interested in 'bad' news stories from Leicester. We have a fantastic city and the vision that the team at De Montfort Hall have shown to grow an event of nationwide significance like Summer Sundae should be absolutely applauded. Instead it's derided by jealous journalists who are upset because they couldn't get a free ticket to the show.

Adam Wakelin should put his true cards on the table as should the editor of the Mercury. How are your sales going Keith?

So Summer Sundae lost money in 2007 and 2008. I hear that 2009 figures will be much healthier. I hear that the Mercury knows this as well but was only interested in printing the bad news.

And with Summer Sundae it's not just about the bottom line. I'm sure that Leicesters restaurants, hotels, shops, taxi firms, pubs and clubs all benefit from the activities which go on.

I for one would hate it if Summer Sundae did not happen next year. I'm hoping that the Mercury's witch-hunt with half truths will not lead to that but if it does we'll all know who to blame for hurting Leicester.
Putting aside the jibes about where we are printed (actually, it's Derby not Leicester and it makes no difference to what we cover, or how), and our falling circulation (we are independently audited and our figures are published), Sean misses the point.

Do you know what? I agree with him 100% about one thing - I'd also hate it if Summer Sundae disappeared.

There are, however, a couple of factual errors in his comment. Firstly, Summer Sundae is not derided by our journalists - we put a massive amount of effort into previewing and reviewing the festival and I've just checked this year's coverage and it was overwhelmingly positive. The only negative note came from the fact that The Streets pulled out at the last moment and even that was covered in article headlined: 'Word on The Streets meant cancellation was no problem.'

We'll come back to Sean's call for me to put my cards on the table - it's the main point of this post and I do have a few cards I'd like to lay down.

But he says that he has heard that this year's festival performed much better financially and that we know this, but were only interested in printing bad news.

Actually, we don't know that. We did ask for the figures, but we were told they were not yet available. If they had been, we would have published them whatever they showed.

Which brings me to my main point: this article was not about Summer Sundae. It was not even really about DMH - it was the latest in a series of revelations from the Mercury about the way the city council spends our money.

Don't get me wrong. It's not about the fact that the city council spends our money, it's about the way it spends our money.

Personally, I'm in favour of public money being spent on public art. I don't believe Leicester spends enough on it, but the level of spending is a decision for the councillors we elect to make these decisions. Should they plough money into DMH? I think that it's great that they do.

Over the past two years, councillors have looked at DMH and decided to give it a grant of just over £1million to help it bring music to the city and we at the Mercury have no issue with that at all. Leicester needs DMH and it needs to attract performers to the city.

So far, so good.

But what we do take issue with is what happens next and the way the city council reacts.

It turns out that De Montfort goes £1.4million over budget and needs to be bailed out with taxpayers' money. Independent auditors are brought in and uncover a catalogue of mismanagement and a bewildering scene of chaos. (We'll try to publish a full copy of the report later today - we should have done that yesterday).

What does the city council do to stem the flow of cash? Well, not enough. The overspend went up in the year after the report and it's clear that the council failed to implement many of the recommendations of the auditors' report.

And that's the nub of our report. It's not about the level of grant aid given to DMH in general, or the Summer Sundae in particular, it's about the lack of control over the way our cash is spent and the way the council makes decisions.

As I hinted at above, this is not an isolated instance:
The Curve Theatre - another essential part of the city's cultural offering - was promised at a cost of £26million, but came in at £61million. Again, independent auditors were very critical of the city council's handling of the project. The Mercury's complaint is not that the city council built The Curve, but that it got the finances so wrong.

Plans for a new art gallery on New Walk - the estimated cost has risen from £1million to £2.2million before we've even seen the plans ... and the plans themselves were not made publicly available early enough in the process and turned out to be unsuitable.

Bowstring Bridge - contrary to popular opinion, the Mercury has not campaigned to save the bridge, but we have tried, to no avail, to force the council to hold its discussions in the open instead of hiding away behind closed doors when making such a big decision.
The common thread running through these reports is not that we object to the decisions taken by the council - we elect them to make the decisions. But we, in common with all the taxpayers of Leicester, have a right to expect the council to spend our money wisely and openly, and to keep a tight grip on projects so that we don't 'accidentally' spend far more than they told us we needed to.

And going back to Sean's comment about our circulation, I'm not sure what point he is trying to make. In common with every newspaper in Britain, our circulation has fallen and has done so pretty much every year for the past 30 years. However, we still have about 150,000 readers every day and we see 'public watchdog' as one of our key roles.

Uncovering the sort of mismanagement outlined in the stories mentioned above is not easy. Adam Wakelin has been looking into DMH's finances for months - it takes determination, time and knowledge - and if we weren't doing it, who would?