THE Observer’s #SaveThePriory campaign has put 10 key questions to Coventry City Council, writes Les Reid.
In this, the third week of our campaign since the medieval gem’s closure, a leading councillor said in response that the current position is “a number of parties have come forward” who MIGHT be interested in re-opening and running the venue.
The council would not state who they are, or what type of organisations they are.
There remains no clarity on potential opening hours sought, or on what basis the centre could be run, or when it might be re-opened.
The Observer campaign is calling on the council to ENSURE the venue is re-opened as a matter of urgency.
It is now three weeks since the doors to the internationally important 1000-year-old venue, founded by Lady Godiva, were astonishingly closed to the world to save just £100,000 in council cuts – meaning treasures which were buried under ground for hundreds of years are now hidden once more.
Here are the questions and answers, from Coun Faye Abbott Cabinet Member (Community Development, Co-Operatives and Social Enterprises) in full.
Q1. Is Coventry City Council in discussions with any potential alternative provider which might step in and run the Priory Visitor Centre, as was suggested last month?
A. Following the announcement of the closure of the Priory Visitor Centre, (Labour) councillor Faye Abbott publicly invited community groups and organisations who had an potential interest in running the centre to make their interest known. A number of interested parties have come forward, and a process to invite formal expressions of interest will be undertaken shortly to ensure all options are considered.
Q2. If so, please give details. How many, who are they, and on what basis might it be run, including potential opening hours?
A. It would not be appropriate to name the above parties at this stage, as they may or may not choose to submit a formal expression of interest. It would also be premature to speculate at this stage on the access to the centre that each option may enable, but the aim is to ensure a level of public access to the centre and Undercroft as cultural assets.
Q3. If so, who is conducting those discussions as the council representative(s), and what would be the decision making process?
A. The discussions around formal Expressions of Interest will be managed through officers in the sports and arts team reporting to David Cockroft (Assistant Director – City Centre and Development Services), Councillor Faye Abbott (Cabinet Member for Community Development, Cooperatives and Social Enterprise) and Councillor Abdul Khan (Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Cabinet Member – Culture, Leisure, Sports, Parks and Events). Coun Khan will make the decision on the preferred future operating model for the centre.
Q4. What is the potential timescale for a re-opening, and is it recognised that it is desirable that any re-opening should be as soon as possible?
A. Yes – we are keen to get the centre open as soon as possible – but the timeframe will in part be set by the successful Expression of Interest.
Q5. The building continues to be used some of the time by other groups for functions, we are told. Can the council confirm this is the case and, if so, why are the Priory and Undercrofts fully closed at present?
A. The lease for the Visitor Centre is still held by Culture Coventry and the Multi-Faith Group who meet there have access under the current lease arrangements. With the reductions in levels of staffing at Culture Coventry (Note: which is council funded and has seen its funding cut), the continuation of guided tours to the Priory and Undercroft is not currently possible (Note: the trust says staffing levels have not been affected by the centre’s closure).
But access will be explored under the new arrangements following the Expression of Interest process. In the meantime the centre and Undercroft could still be opened for special occasions, such as Heritage open days. The detail of this would need to be agreed on an event by event basis.
Q6. The Priory is almost 1,000 years old and was founded by Lady Godiva and Earl Leofric. It tells the city’s story to the world and potentially future generations of Coventrians. Why shut it for a saving of just £100,000 a year from a revenue budget of £230million, a figure less than half the total annual earnings of Coventry City Council chief executive Martin Reeves?
A. It is clearly the council’s wish that a level of public access to the Priory and Undercrofts will be restored under a new operating model. The spending power of the council has reduced by £350 per resident since 2010, yet the council is seeing increased pressure particularly around adult social care and children’s services. This means we are looking at every penny that we spend. We hope that by inviting groups or organisations to come forward and take on the visitor centre we will be able to tell the story for many years to come.
Q7. We recognise heavy pressure from government funding cuts to councils, but please provide a fuller rationale if possible for the council’s decision to shut the centre.
A. We are facing the deepest cuts the city has ever faced. And working hard to balance the budget and deliver frontline services. Visitor numbers have continued to fall year on year – but we are committed to finding a different way to tell the story whilst and retaining the centre and access to the Undercrofts as cultural assets.
Q8. Prominent medieval historian Dr Jonathan Foyle says the Priory Visitor Centre is of ‘national importance’ but he believes more could be done to market and promote it effectively to attract more visitors, as well as at other medieval Coventry gems such as St Mary’s Guildhall. This argument has been accepted by some leading Labour councillors and party figures in recent years. Is it accepted now?
A: Culture Coventry and Coventry Heritage and Arts Trust both actively marketed the centre, but numbers have not climbed back to the peak levels of 2005/6. Access to Undercrofts has always been by arrangement (guide) so this will be examined in responses to the Expression of Interest. Once the new model of operation is in place we will work with the new operators to ensure the centre is marketed. Of course historical assets are important – we are continuing to support a range of bids and projects around the history and heritage of our city.
Q9. Is it accepted, as Dr Foyle argues, that better promotion of the Priory centre and/or other historic sites could help generate income for the city via more tourism and inward investment, thus potentially also raising more income including through business rates for council services to the vulnerable?
A. Promoting Coventry as a destination for tourism is an ambition of the Council Plan – in fact the city already generates over £400million in tourism a year. In terms of overall visitors the Priory is accessed by less than 1% of current visitors.
We are working with partners to join up heritage attractions including the regeneration of places such as Charterhouse, Fargo Village, Burges and other properties to provide a unique heritage experience for tourists and visitors to the city.
If we can secure a provider to operate the centre they will be included in this work so they feel the benefit of working together to promote the city’s heritage offer. We are continuing to work with partners to bring investment and business rates in to the city.
How YOU can support our #SaveThePriory campaign:
- Our letters page.. Share your thoughts and experiences, in words or pictures, and say what Coventry’s proud medieval history means to you.
- On Twitter @covobserver. Using the hashtag #savethepriory to pledge your support.
- On Facebook.co.uk/covobserver. Keep up to date, and share your thoughts.
- Head to our dedicated #savethepriory web page, and get the latest on the battle to Save the Priory Visitor Centre