Swindon’s literature festival could fold if council pulls £5,000 grant

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SWINDON’S literature festival could be axed if £80,000 budget cuts at the council are approved.

The move would also see a drop in the council’s grants to Reach Inclusive Arts, youth theatre Prime and media workshop provider Create Studios.

The proposal still has to be agreed by the council’s Conservative cabinet at its meeting tomorrow and then full council on February 20. But the people who run the organisations set to lose funding say it could see them close.

Matt Holland is the founder and chief executive of Swindon Literature Festival, now rebranded as the Spring Festival of Literature and the Arts.

He said: “I was just putting the programme together for the 2020 festival when I was given notification by the council that the proposal is to cut the grant entirely. Nobody had spoken to me about it before I got that.

“It might mean we can’t go ahead this year and next year. It does put the festival in danger.

“I get £5,000 a year, about a third of my total funding. The point about council funding is that other organisations, foundations and the Arts Council take it seriously. A grant from the council is like an endorsement and it’s much easier to get funding from elsewhere if you have it.

“For £5,000, which doesn’t seem a huge amount, I bring in extra funding to Swindon, and the festival is really popular.

“We get national and internationally-renowned writers and they love it. The reputational gain for Swindon is huge. The council couldn’t get that if they spent £5,000 anywhere else on advertising.”

The point about using the council’s grant as ‘seed money’ was echoed by Mark Smart, chair of trustees of Reach Inclusive Arts, which last year received a grant of £13,000.

He said: “We used that to raise funds of £101,000 to be spent on providing arts activities for disabled people.

He described the proposed cut as a “crushing blow” and added: “Our grant is the only regular funding we receive and provides the reliable core funding we need to lever all other funding. Without the support of the borough council the medium term-outlook for us is bleak.”

Mark Powell of Prime Theatre was expecting a reduction in its £33,000 grant, but was taken aback at the proposal to cut it entirely.

He said: “Prime Theatre understands the financial pressures the council is under but urges cabinet to recognise the work we do in supporting the borough’s most vulnerable children.

“This past year we raised funds of an extra £200,000 to go straight into activity, often adding extra income and resource to the council’s own budgets and priorities. We unlock most of this income because we can cite the council’s financial support in out applications. Negotiations are ongoing and I hope councillors make the decision to support our young people until we can plan any new long-term business strategy.”

Mr Powell added: “I managed to speak with David Renard (the leader of the council) about it. He said it hadn’t been decided and still had to be agreed by the cabinet and then the full council and said that talking to me and others about it was part of the consultation.”

The fourth cut could be of Create Studio’s £30,000 grant. Chief executive Shahina Johnson said she was still negotiating with the council, and hoped to be able to continue to co-operate with it in providing digital training, and declined to comment further.

Labour councillors are not happy with the proposed cut. Jane Milner-Barry the group’s spokeswoman on cultural issues said: “Prime Theatre, Reach, Create and the Festival of Literature provide vital services and are great value for money. At the same time as running theatre skills workshops and teaching digital skills, Prime Theatre and Create are promoting inclusion, inspiring confidence and providing young people with professional and life skills that will be invaluable to them. Reach Inclusive Arts works in partnership with the Avon and Wiltshire Mental Health Partnership; among its many activities are youth theatre projects for pupils at Uplands and Crowdy’s Hill, and arts groups for adults living in isolation.

“The Festival of Literature has a national reputation and has done more than anything else to improve the image of the town. To lose all the wonderful PR the festival provides for the sake of £5,000 just doesn’t make sense. I thought the council wanted people to “Switch on to Swindon” and come and make their lives here.

“Removing this core funding would be pulling the rug. Prime Theatre gets £33,000 a year from the council but this enables it to leverage another £150,000 from other funding sources. It’s the same with the other three. The Arts Council and other grant providers do not give grants to local organisations unless they can see that the local authority values their work. There is much more at stake here than the council’s contribution, important though that is.

“The cabinet is proposing to end all support for these four organisations at two months’ notice. None of them was expecting this and they all have programmes in place for the coming year. Has the council treated them in a professional manner? How are they to fulfil their obligations? The cabinet must urgently reconsider its short-sighted decision to abandon these organisations. Swindon can’t afford to lose them.”

Cabinet member for the town centre Dale Heenan said: “The council has to find £16m in savings to balance its budget and a number of proposals have been put forward in order to achieve this. No decisions on the budget will be made until the meeting later this month and we are in discussions with affected groups in the meantime.”


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