WHEN it comes to financial support for local organisations, there can be no denying that Lyme Regis Town Council is the most generous of all the towns and parishes authorities in Dorset.
But that generosity comes at a price – because it’s impossible to please all.
Numerous occasions we have been told that Lyme is a rich council. Former deputy mayor Jeff Scowen was often quoted as saying “we can afford it, we are a rich council”.
But the days of milk and honey may well be over, as made perfectly clear by the Mayor, Councillor Brian Larcombe MBE, at last week’s grants allocation meeting when a total of about £340,00 was sanctioned over the next five years, £60,000 in the 2020-2021 financial year.
Giving away money should be a joyous occasion – but that has never been the case at the town council’s grants meetings. In past years they have degenerated into slanging matches between councillors who, understandably, have their own favourite charities, and unacceptable boorish behaviour.
The council has always struggled to come up with the fairest way to allocate money and settled for a system of minor, medium and major grants. But this year that was scrapped for a new system of having two pots of money – community grants of up to £1,000 (£20,000 in all) and term grants for between £1,000 and £30,000 up to five years (£60,000 in total per year).
So last Tuesday night the term grants were on offer, but with requests totalling £167,292 for the first year alone. No other town or parish council gives away that amount of money, even in Weymouth where there is a population of 71,000.
How is it possible for such a small town as Lyme to be so generous? To answer that question, I will have to take you back to 1974 when local government was reorganised, doing away with the old borough council and the formation of West Dorset District Council with local matters being allocated to the new Lyme Regis Town Council.
Lyme ended up being able to keep many of its amenities not envisaged by the Local Government Act, due mainly to the efforts of the then town clerk Harry Williams sacrificing his local government career to make sure the town retained some of its more lucrative assets.
Initially, the town council struggled financially and there was an uneasy relationship with the district council for the whole of its lifespan. The district council is, of course, no more with Dorset having a new unitary authority.
Lyme kept the lucrative Monmouth Beach car park but leased it to WDDC for 25 years. At the end of the lease the town council took back the running of the beachside park and this has helped to swell the council’s coffers along with the other amenities in their ownership, which would have been gobbled up by WDDC had it not been for Harry Williams’ negotiation skills and dedication to Lyme.
It was this boost in car parking revenue that has enabled Lyme Regis Town Council to generate such funds to be able to give away so much to community groups and charities.
But those days are drawing to a close and despite having cash assets of £1.3million, the council is facing a number of costly essential projects, including the resurfacing of the flay roof above the Amusement Arcade and SWIM, which could wipe out a big chunk of that amount.
Before Tuesday’s meeting it had been agreed to reduce the amount allocated this year from £130,000 to £80,000 but the demand was just as high.
The meeting did not descend to the level of past grant debates but it was the most lively of the new council with one councillor shouting out: “Stop arguing, this is ridiculous.” Some thought the cuts to be “brutal”.
During the full debate it was stated several times that the council cannot afford to support all applications. Those days are over.
The biggest beneficiary on the night was the Marine Theatre, allocated £22,000 for the next five years, a reduction of £8,000 a year which is likely to impact heavily on the theatre’s financial viability as it’s already in a loss-making situation.
Some councillors were in favour of reducing the Marine’s grant even further but the mayor pointed out that no regional theatre could exist without such help and reducing the sum would probably be “signing a death warrant” for the Marine.
The council is always likely to support community groups such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Axe Valley Ring & Ride, The Hub and LymeForward, but great disappointment has been expressed, particularly on social media, that organisations such as the majorettes and bowling club, have not been successful.
It is probable that such groups will not be able to rely in future years on any significant financial support from the town council. Whilst that is disappointing, from the council’s point of view it will put an end to the abuse that some councillors are currently experiencing with residents voicing their opinion strongly that the council should be giving more support to these local groups.
We should be celebrating the fact that the council is able to give away such a large amount of money. But yet again, it’s tinged with rancour and controversy.
Guildhall as we’ve never seen it before
TWO of Lyme’s most iconic buildings are sporting new facades – and winning a great deal of admiring glances.
Surely the most recognisable building in Lyme, the Guildhall, built in 1887, has been stripped of the white paint that surrounded the windows and entrance, exposing the stonework that townspeople have probably never seen.
The work has been carried out by the town council’s own outside staff.
Also, the scaffolding is finally coming down at St Michael’s Parish Church, revealing its smart new tower with repairs having been carried out and the removal of the ugly pebble dash.
The bells were rung last week in celebration for the first time for several months and the church clock will soon be ticking again.