'Flabbergasted' council forced to find £700k after 'not getting enough' Levelling Up cash for 'jewel in its crown'

Pendle Council is searching to find £700,000 of its own money to complete upgrades to a beloved entertainment venue - after running out of Levelling-Up cash.

Councillors have been told work done so far on Colne Municipal Hall has breached an original budget funded by the Government. But now - after major structural work has been completed - work is needed to finish the venue

Questions have now been raised about the original financial support amid claims the project has been 'hamstrung' after not getting enough Levelling-Up money.

The Municipal Hall, known as Colne Muni, is one of three Colne theatre spaces which have received government funding. The others are Pendle Hippodrome and the Little Theatre. They are part of Colne heritage quarter projects.

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Until recently, councillors were advised that the Muni project was within budget. But 'very recently', it emerged that it is now over-spent and further cash is needed, Pendle Council's Executive heard at its latest meeting.

A report to councillors outlined the situation and possible options.

'FLABBERGASTED'

Lib-Dem Coun David Whipp, deputy leader of Pendle Council, said : "I'm frankly flabbergasted with this report. I said from the get-go that the Levelling-up scheme in Colne was grossly under-funded.

"This council, under the previous [Conservative} administration, bid for £6.5million at the time. The average allocation in that round was £16.5million. We really ought to have bid for that. Wherever we look at the Colne schemes, we see there was inadequate consideration of what the true costs would be."

He added: "I have been more closely involved with the Colne Market Hall scheme, where that project is hamstrung by inadequate funding, We now see the Muni is costing something like half a million pounds more than was planned. There's a litany of additional costs.

"But we have started it so we will finish it. However, if we had not been constrained by such a ridiculously low budget then the whole scheme could have been properly budgeted for."

He added: "I'm not best-pleased and I'm sure there's a whole range of questions. But we need to continue the work and approve the over-spend."

'PEOPLE ARE FRUSTRATED'

Lib-Dem Coun Dorothy Long agreed and said: "From the start, the previous administration rushed into this, hadn't thought it out. Now this is where we're at. Outside the Muni, there's a sign saying 'a bit more drama'. In a few weeks it might be 'a lot more drama'.

"I feel embarrassed about it. It's my town where I've lived for many years. Everybody is frustrated with it. We need to find more funding. We cannot be in a position where work is left unfinished and the place is left like a tip. It's a well-used venue and people come from far and wide to see shows there. We need a plan and to know where money will come from. It would be a massive shame and total embarrassment if it was not completed."

Independent Coun Mohammed Iqbal asked how the money might be found?: He said £400,000 of the over-spend for work already done and £276,000 was needed for more work to 'do a proper job'. If the council borrowed money externally, it could ultimately reach £1million, he feared.

Council officer Damon Lawrenson, the Interim Director of Resources, said it was expected the money would be found internally from the council's existing funds. Options would be looked at with an update in August. The council may also speak this week to the government's Department of Levelling-Up, to see if more funding is possible.

POLITICAL RESPONSIBILITY

Then Coun Iqbal added: "I am also concerned about how this has happened? There needs to be some responsibility at a political level, maybe not from this administration but from the previous administration. led by Coun Nadeem Ahmed? [About] where this over-spend has been authorised?

"I have only recently joined this executive, so I'm not sure whether this over-spend was authorised by political members? If it was, fine. If not, I would welcome a private briefing about how this has happened.

"The Muni is Pendle's jewel in the crown. I agree something needs to be done. But £500,000-and-counting is a lot of money for Pendle tax-payers. And coupled with other items we are looking at, I think the council will be bankrupt before we know it, before the Muni is even finished. If political oversight has not been done into this, why not?

AREA COMMITTEE'S AWARENESS

Coun Whipp said: "When I became aware of this overspend, I learned the reporting was done monthly to the Colne & District Committee. I don't think the over-spend was reported because I don't think our officers were aware of an overspend. If we'd been setting this up in the first place, the reporting systems would have been different. This is the first time the executive has had sight of this."

Council officer Phillip Spurr, Director of Place, said: "Yes, reports have gone monthly to the Colne area committee,. But to be entirely clear, those reported an underspend. It's more than unfortunate. It's very challenging. There will be an internal investigation. But the Colne committee was told the project was on-budget because that was the information officers had until very recently. "

Coun Iqbal then said he was even more concerned that the reported under-spend had now become an over-spend. He would not support a current recommendation to fund the over-spend.

CONSERVATIVE VIEW

Pendle Conservative group leader Coun Nadeem Ahmed, a former council leader, is not on the executive. He watched the meeting from public seats.

He said: "This is a serious point. My name has been mentioned in some discussions and points made about the previous administration. If there isn't evidence there, I think people are jumping the guns. When we see reports like this, councillors can be quick to jump the gun, Councillors have also made some serious allegations in other meetings and political points. Without the evidence and a full review, it's very difficult to decide."

He added: "I could sit here and say, hindsight is a great think and why did we bid for £6,.5million? But I think we need to look at why we bid for £6.5million, what was the reason and what advice were councillors offered?

"I could say the current [Independent and Lib-Dem] administration has been in power for 13 months and why weren't you aware of this? But it wouldn't help. It's quite childish simply to accuse people. Let's look at what's happened, where decisions were made, and let's learn from it."

Coun Whipp agreed a 'root and branch' review was needed. But work done so far at The Muni by contractors should be paid for. To default would not be good. Furthermore, remaining work to be started included furniture, curtains and interior decorating, which the public would expect.

In a vote, the majority of councillors agreed to fund the overspend on the projects detailed in the report. They supported match-funding the additional £423,000 to ensure the works create a 'refreshed facility'. The additional amount requested, in addition to the current overspend, would push the total sum needed to £699,000.