Music cash wasted

STEVE DOWNES More than £170,000 of public money has already been wasted on an abandoned plan for a £2m music centre and recording studio for disadvantaged Norfolk people, it emerged yesterday.

STEVE DOWNES

More than £170,000 of public money has already been wasted on an abandoned plan for a £2m music centre and recording studio for disadvantaged Norfolk people, it emerged last night.

The sum was part of a £1.6m lottery-funded grant from Arts Council England to Community Music East (CME) nine years ago.

In October, Arts Council England took back around £1.43m of the grant to "reallocate" to good causes after saying it was "not satisfied" with the project's progress.

But documents released to the EDP under freedom of information legislation show that the remaining £170,249 has been spent - and will never be recovered to benefit needy organisations.

The papers reveal that a series of frantic emails were sent between the two organisations throughout 2006 in the lead-up to a make-or-break review by Arts Council England's regional office.

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The papers show how the emails were in vain as officials finally lost patience with CME after nine years of trying to progress the ambitious project - first in a disused King Street warehouse, then in the old studio building at the back of Norwich Theatre Royal.

But much of the critical detail about how and why the project collapsed has not been made available after Arts Council said much of the information was confidential and refused to release it. Arts Council released copies of its letter to CME, informing the company of the decision to retrieve the money - and CME's "frustrated" reply a few weeks later.

Andrea Stark, Arts Council executive director, in a letter dated October 13 2006, wrote: "We have discussed our concerns with you at the key stage review meeting and this letter is to confirm in writing that we are not satisfied that the deliverables have been met.

"We are therefore providing CME written confirmation that the remaining capital grant of £1,425,963 is withdrawn in accordance with the conditions of the award agreement."

The reply from Tony Brown, CME co-chair, dated November 11, says: "We are inevitably frustrated by your decision. I asked myself - and the meeting - what has fundamentally changed in the years since the award was originally made.

"CME has survived for 20 years, almost twice as long as it had then. The organisation has roughly trebled in size, volume of work and income."

He added: "We have established, and are successfully managing, relationships with key funders, enabling us to capitalise on new opportunities as they arise."

He said CME had proof of its "opportunism, flexibility and resilience", and had "at last identified a source for a substantial amount of the gap funding which has eluded us for so long".

"Against this background," he said, "the intention to withdraw the grant is certainly hard to explain to colleagues and supporters."

In a press release issued after the Arts Council decision, CME director Ben Higham said there was renewed hope for the project.

He said: "With the declared support of our stakeholders and indications of some capital funding, albeit more modest than the lottery award, we now hope to establish a new home providing many of the facilities we had previously expected for the benefit of all our users."

Last night Dr Ian Gibson, MP for Norwich north, called on CME to be "rough and tough" in order to revive the project.

He said: "I think it's very important that we have such a project. I'm quite sure they can make it happen. But I think there are a lot of feelings of 'stars in their eyes' in this enterprise.

"If they need help they should be asking for it from the right sort of people - including MPs. CME has got to be rough and tough to get the support it needs.

"I think they should hold a summit meeting to decide where they go from here."