Page last updated at 14:24 GMT, Thursday, 29 January 2009

Arts centre 'complete waste of money'

By Tom Warren
BBC News

The Public
The Public has so far cost more than 60m

The Arts Council has pulled the plug on funding for a 60m art gallery beset by problems.

The Public, in West Bromwich, was supposed to help regenerate a deprived area - but should the money have been spent on other projects?

With its bubble-shaped windows and striking pink frames The Public has become a Black Country landmark.

For many though the arts complex is widely-recognised for all the wrong reasons.

It opened in June last year - two years late and 15m over budget.

There was a very bad business plan from the start and it escalated very quickly
Fiona McEvoy, Taxpayers' Alliance

But its main feature, an interactive gallery which visitors would pay 6.95 to enter, is still not up and running.

It was for this reason the Arts Council decided enough was enough and withdrew its 520,000-a-year funding.

But it is providing a one-off 3m grant to try to open the whole arts complex.

In Sandwell, the borough encompassing six towns including West Bromwich, there is anger among residents who feel the money should have been better spent.

Sandwell Council, which owns and runs the building, contributed 18m towards the project. The rest of the cash came from the Arts Council, Advantage West Midlands and the European Union.

Andrew Gale, landlord of the Waggon and Horse in nearby Oldbury, said many of his customers disliked The Public and questioned how long it should stay open.

Inside The Public
The interactive gallery at the centre has not yet opened

"Generally they say it's a complete waste of tax payers' money.

"They feel as though the money would have been better spent on other facilities in the area, for the people of Sandwell, like a big sports centre for the children.

"Or it could have been used in sprucing-up the area a bit, it looks a bit run-down in West Bromwich to be honest."

He said the area also needed a new swimming pool.

Fiona McEvoy, of the Taxpayers' Alliance, agrees.

Funding 'scandal'

"It should have been reassessed a couple of years ago and this money should have been spent regenerating West Bromwich, which badly needs it.

"I've spent quite a lot of time [talking to people] on the streets and they usually say they don't have a council leisure centre or a swimming pool.

"They basically want some services for the children."

Ms McEvoy said The Public, designed by architect Will Alsopp, had originally been a project with good intentions.

"There was a very bad business plan from the start and it escalated very quickly and didn't take long for the cost to become unjustifiable.

"It's been a terrible drain on the public purse."

The Conservatives are calling for an investigation by the National Audit Office.

Shadow arts minister Ed Vaizey described The Public as "the biggest arts scandal for decades".

"I think the people of West Bromwich have been very badly let down," he said.

Inside The Public
Sandwell Council claims the building has enhanced West Bromwich

Councillor Bob Badham, cabinet member for regeneration at Sandwell, said the interactive gallery would soon open.

"The main thing now is to get the business plan online and start drawing on [the 3m] that's been made available to us."

He said a new leisure centre was planned for West Bromwich and denied The Public was a waste of money.

"The building is not just a gallery, it's a massive space the public can use. Let's all pull together now to make it work."

The Public is not the only arts project of recent years to run in to trouble.

The Curve theatre, in Leicester, opened two years late in November last year after costing more than double its original estimate.

The opening of Firstsite, a gallery in Colchester, Essex, has been delayed until 2010 due to problems with its design.

And Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music closed in 1999 due to low visitor numbers.

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