Council struggle to share out £60k in heated meeting

IN the most heated Lyme Regis Town Council meeting in months, members allocated grants totalling more than £340,000 over the next five years to seven local organisations.

In light of some major expenditure, including resurfacing the flat roof area at the bottom of Lister Gardens and refurbishing the council offices, the budget for local grants has been reduced from about £130,000 to £80,000 this year.

The council has also completely changed its system for allocating funds, scrapping the former minor, medium and major grants for two new pots – £20,000 a year for annual community grants and £60,000 a year for term grants.

For the community grants, organisations can apply for up to £1,000 each and for the term grants, discussed during a tense meeting this week, applicants were invited to apply for between £1,000 and £30,000 annually for up to five years.

Against the £60,000 annual budget, 18 organisations applied for a total of £167,292 in the first year alone, resulting in some difficult decisions and arguments over whether the new system was fair.

Town clerk John Wright said that in previous discussions regarding the new grants policy, there had been two major themes which members were asked to bear in mind during their deliberations.

These were that councillors wanted to support functions and services which were important to the community and its well-being, and organisations which showed an effort to raise money in their own right.

The Mayor of Lyme Regis, Councillor Brian Larcombe MBE, added that it was also important to consider the “criticality” of the grant and what it meant to the organisation to be in receipt of it.

Councillor Richard Doney, who initially put forward the change to the grants system, said that the term grants were intended to offer long-term revenue support to organisations that relied on it, so he questioned why several applications were for one-off events or capital projects.

Councillor Michaela Ellis said these organisations had to apply for term grants because the new community grants were only for a maximum of £1,000.

Councillor Cheryl Reynolds added: “It seems odd to me that if someone wants, say £6,000, but only for one year, they can do nothing else other than apply for the term grant, because the community grants are only up to £1,000. I can’t see where else these people could have gone.”

Councillor Larcombe said that they would try to make the allocations “as fair as possible with the limited means we have”, pointing out that the total requested was far more than the council had given out in previous years, let alone its newly-reduced budget.

He added that Lyme Regis Town Council still gave away more in grant funding than any other town or parish council in Dorset.

Members went through the list of 18 applications to consider which ones they wanted to support and which ones should be cut, with some describing the process as “brutal”.

Most of those cut from the list were organisations that had requested a smaller amount for one year only, rather than long-term revenue funding over five years, as it was considered they did not meet the criteria of a term grant.

It was suggested that some of these could instead apply for the community grants, which will be considered in April, but Councillor Ellis argued this was unfair because they could then only apply for up to £1,000.

“These people have got to come to this pot because we have reduced the total of the other pot,” she said.

“When we had three levels [minor, medium and major] they had a place to go but now we have cut that out.

“If we cut all these organisations out we are really going to be slated. We’ve told them this is where they have to come and now we’re saying they’re not suitable for a term grant and they have to apply for a smaller grant.”

Councillor Larcombe said that councillors could still vote in favour of those who had requested smaller, one-off sums if they felt their applications were valid, but they would have to be conscious that they were “doing so at the expense of others”.

“We cannot accommodate these kinds of figures from everyone,” he added.

“The previous grants total of £130,000 was excessive by any comparator and we cannot live in that environment anymore.”

Councillor Reynolds commented: “Well this isn’t working either.”

‘Absolute hell’

Councillor Doney said: “I know this is hard and we are struggling, we just do not have the money to help everyone and it hurts but we need to keep on pushing through. We can’t just keep going back and changing our policy, we’ve made our bed and now we lie in it.”

Councillor Ellis continued: “This first year is going to be absolute hell to get this money down to budget, and if we’re saying the only way we can do that is by not giving these people [those that had applied for one year of funding] the money it’s unfair.”

The meeting became more frustrated as members struggled to see eye-to-eye about which organisations to cut from the list. Councillor Reynolds said it was “impossible” to cut the £167,292 requested down to the £60,000 budget.

Councillor Kelsey Ellis replied: “At the end of the day we’ve got a system we’re working with. We can’t now go back months of discussions and say ‘hang on a minute, this isn’t working’. We have got to make it work, we have no choice.”

Councillor Michaela Ellis continued to clash with Councillor Larcombe, maintaining that the new system was unfair on organisations that had requested just one year of funding.

Councillor Larcombe commented: “You’re going to have to think about this a bit harder, Michaela.”

Councillor Ellis replied: “I am thinking about it harder, I’m thinking about all the organisations we have told can apply tonight and now we’re saying they have to apply for a smaller grant and they can only have up to £1,000.”

Councillor Larcombe: “No, no, no. This is the last time I’ll explain it Michaela…”

Councillor Ellis: “I do not need you to explain it, Brian, I fully understand what you’re saying.”

Councillor Larcombe: “The statement you have made is incorrect, we have not said that they have to go into community grants. What we said is that it feels more appropriate for that kind of grant and they’re welcome to apply, we haven’t said they must.

“What we can see from tonight’s long list of applications is that we cannot afford all of them, it’s as simple as that.”

Marine Theatre biggest beneficiary

After two hours off debate, final figures were agreed for seven successful organisations.

The biggest beneficiary of the night was the Marine Theatre, although this still saw a significant blow to its annual funding, cut from £30,000 a year to £22,000 up until 2025.

Some members had wanted to see the theatre’s funding reduced over five years to £15,000 in 2025, but the mayor argued they would be “signing a death warrant”, as the Marine is reliant on the council’s funding. He added that no provincial theatre made a profit.

Other annual grants awarded up until 2025 were £10,000 for LymeForward, £10,000 for The Hub, £5,000 for B Sharp, £4,500 for Bridport & District CAB, and £1,500 for Axe Valley and West Dorset Ring & Ride.

Members were unanimous in their support for these groups, as they felt they benefited those most in need in the community, although LymeForward and The Hub were the only organisations to receive the full total they requested.

Lyme Regis Museum will also receive £7,000 a year but only until 2023, as per its application.

Applications from the following organisations were rejected (the amount requested given in brackets): Axminster & Lyme Cancer Support (£3,000), Lyme Folk Weekend (£2,000), Lyme Regis Fossil Festival (£6,000), Lyme Regis Musical Theatre (£3,500), Guitars On The Beach (£6,000), Lyme Regis Bowling Club (£2,000), Lyme Regis Gig Club (£10,000), Lyme Regis Majorettes (£5,000), St Michael & St George Roman Catholic Church (£30,000), Town Mill (£15,000), Uplyme & Lyme Regis Cricket Club (£5,000).

With the exception of Axminster & Lyme Cancer Support, these applications were all for one-off events or capital projects, which members felt did not meet the criteria of the term grants.

They rejected Axminster & Lyme Cancer Support’s application, as the council had already granted it £5,000 from the ‘Ammonite’ film funding pot, and members said there were a lot of other health charities in the area that also needed support.

Councillors did not support the £30,000 application to repair the roof at St Michael & St George Roman Catholic Church, despite awarding £40,000 for the refurbishment of the tower at St Michael’s Parish Church last year.

Councillor Larcombe said comparisons should not be made between the two, as the grant for the parish church had been made to support a Grade I listed building that was in grave risk of severe damage. He emphasised that this was not related to religious affiliation.

As the meeting was closing, the mayor congratulated members on getting through a difficult debate and said that when they woke up the next morning their decisions “would look entirely sensible”.

But arguments continued with Councillor Michaela Ellis commenting: “To me, I think we’re going to get a lot of backlash because all those that asked for a one-year grant have been cut.”

Councillor Larcombe replied: “Whichever way we cut it we could not afford them all.”

Drawing the matter to a close, Councillor Kelsey Ellis said: “We have agreed as a council what we’re doing, that is the council’s view and it’s done.”

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