The Old Market: Financial History
Repeatedly over the last decade, The Old Market Arts Centre Trustees, unable or unwilling to service or repay a very large historic debt, have looked beyond its profitable trading position for rescue funding.
At the beginning of this year, in a change of tack, Trustees submitted the first of two planning application attempts which sought to build two large glass penthouses on top of the historic Grade II listed Old Market building in Hove. Approval of this plan would have set a dangerous precedent giving carte blanche to anyone to make unusual changes to listed structures just on the basis of ‘needing the money’. The first application was refused and in September the revised application was also refused. Tellingly, planning committee Member, Cllr Paul Steedman, stated that he was not convinced by the claimed financial need.
In the wake of these refusals, a petition seeking grant support from the council is now being introduced before every event by Old Market manager and trustee Stephen Neiman. He explains that the Old Market does not receive any funding from the council, nor from the Arts Council. He readily admits the Trust covers the cost of its operations, but says it is unable to clear its “historic debt”. An electronic petition (lodged on the council’s website) states that the requests for funding “have been met continually by both organisations stating that although they are supportive of the arts and community use of the building, they cannot support a project with such a capital deficit.”
Superficially it appears to be a reasonable request for some financial assistance – but is it all it seems? Prospective signatories are given the impression that neither the Arts Council nor the council have ever donated a penny. Even Delia Forester, ex-Labour councillor and ex-deputy chair of planning, takes as read this supposed lack of public funding in her letter of support for the two glass penthouses.
It is in fact an ungrateful slur on both organisations. In 1999 The National Lottery (through the Arts Council) donated £1 million to the Old Market Trust – at the time, the largest donation to an arts project in the South East. Furthermore the only significant condition was that there would be a clawback should the Old Market be sold within a 10 year timeframe. Those 10 years expired on 11th March 2009 – around the time the Old Market Trustees registered the planning application for the glass penthouses.
In 1998 the Labour administration provided the Old Market Trust with a loan of £275,000, to be repaid in 10 equal instalments. In 2001 that debt was deferred to 2006. Further funding came in the form of a £585,000 grant from the Single Regeneration Partnership, administered through Brighton & Hove City Council.
The Labour-run administration, in which Delia Forester was a key player, went even further in 2004. Council finance officers Catherine Vaughan and Peter Sargent presented a report to councillors recommending that the loan should be converted to a grant. Their reasoning was that should the Old Market Trust become insolvent Brighton and Hove City Council would be unlikely to retrieve the £275,000, and as they had already distributed the money to the Trust it would “have no additional financial impact on the council”. The report concluded that “The council therefore has no financial gain from pursuing repayment of the loan”. Spurious logic, but the report was approved, and the unpaid debt wiped out.
These actions helped to significantly reduce the “historic debt” to just over £1 million. In 2007, local businessman, Jonathan Bigg, entered into an agreement with the Old Market Trust to take 250-year leases on areas within the Old Market building with the intention of sub-letting them as office space. For this he paid the Trust £1 million, a sum he maintains Stephen Neiman and the Trustees assured him would clear their debt. Having given the money, he then learned that the Trust intended to build two glass penthouses above the areas he had just leased. When he discovered that their motivation behind the glass penthouse plan was again to clear this debt, he was told that his £1 million had made no impact on the debt and that the Trust remained in exactly the same position as before. He asks – quite reasonably – “where has the money gone?”
With stories floating around about late payments to staff it seems at least one person is sitting pretty in all this and that is the Old Market’s artistic director, Ms. Caroline Brown. In 2005 Ms. Brown took home £32,500, and in the following year £35,000. In 2007, supposedly at a time of intense financial pressure due to the Old Market debts, her salary rose sharply to £60,535, coupled with expense claims of £17,500. In fact Ms. Brown’s salary makes up a large chunk of total outgoings on salaries. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Ms. Caroline Brown is actually Mrs. Caroline Neiman, the wife of Old Market manager and trustee Stephen Neiman.
It seems a shame that the Old Market could close its doors soon – it is undoubtedly a superb and successful venue marred by the seemingly poor financial decisions of its trustees. We invite readers to form their own conclusions.