‘Why York Arts Barge is worth the money’

Afloat… the York Arts Barge, 'Selby Tony'. Photographs; York Arts Barge
Afloat… the York Arts Barge, 'Selby Tony'. Photographs; York Arts Barge

Afloat… the York Arts Barge, ‘Selby Tony’. Photographs; York Arts Barge

marcia-mackey-headshotAt a time of council cuts, news that up to £100K of public funding could go to the floating arts centre has drawn flak. Marcia Mackey argues that it’s an investment in the city’s future

A busy summer and autumn was rounded off nicely this week as Selby Tony, aka The Arts Barge, was re-floated after minor works and major painting of the hull in dry dock. She’ll have to come back out again for a final signing off by the surveyor before she comes to York but it’s a great milestone.

In terms of reception, we’ve had a mixed bag over the last year since the council granted us funding – with some fantastic support and encouragement as well as some criticism and debate-sparking. For that reason this is a longer, and far more detailed, blog than we’d normally subject you to!

First the good news.

For every pound of the £25,000 granted by City of York Council last year, we’ve attracted well over a pound from the community – £30,000 at the moment.

Swinton boatyard owners Tony and Steve Waddington paid for a huge chunk of the works to the hull then we had great news on the sponsorship front when Hempel Paints donated all of the paint for the underside of the barge and marine corrosion specialists MGDUFF supplied us with anodes (anodes are what prevents corrosion of the hull – they have to be changed every few years). Plus we’ve been offered interest-free, soft loans from private investors which we’re using as and when needed.

We’ve applied for a grant from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation towards running costs for the next three years to take us through the development phase and into the barge’s completion and opening.

For the capital aspect of the project (completing the build) we’ll be approaching Arts Council England as well as continuing to create links with business in order to continue to achieve match funding throughout the build.

Our grant

We’re aware that a Freedom of Information request has been granted to Gwen Swinburn regarding the council’s decision to offer us an economic infrastructure fund (EIF) grant. Just to be clear, it’s the council and not The Arts Barge Project which is under scrutiny. Gwen and her supporters are keen to know exactly what was offered and on what terms.

In the press there is a general lack of understanding about the nature of EIF which was designed to grow the city’s infrastructure in order to encourage and create growth for the future. It was never going to be available to replace grit and salt bins (main areas of concern in many residents’ letters).

As residents and taxpayers ourselves, we share concerns about spending priorities but we also strongly believe that along with any initiative designed to increase York’s cultural appeal (and therefore its attractiveness to business, to visitors and to prospective residents) our project will be of significant benefit to the city.

But we realise that we have some work to do in helping people to understand what we’re about. Although we’ve reached relatively large audiences (over 14,000 people have seen or been involved in what we do) we’re a small group of five volunteers and we haven’t been able to be as far reaching as we’d like because we don’t have a permanent base – it’s this priority which is driving completion of the barge-venue.

There are lots of examples of financially successful projects run from barges – Battersea Barge London, Bristol Grain Barge and Thekla in Bristol to name a few. But we do understand that it’s unique for York and that, unlike these commercial enterprises, we’re asking the council to invest in it.

That’s because we’re trying to replace our arts centre – something we and our supporters regard as a legitimate candidate for local authority support.

The barge in Swinton dry dock

The barge in Swinton dry dock

Water reflects on the repainted hull

Water reflects on the repainted hull

Buying the barge

But there are also some valid concerns about the fact that we don’t have a mooring secured yet and we’d like to try and address those. We chose a barge because we wanted an affordable but iconic city centre venue.

We then needed to find something large enough to generate the finance to sustain itself.

Barges of this scale don’t come up very often in the region. They’re more available in the south or abroad but the costs of purchase and transportation are huge. So we did well to find something the right size, in great condition and local – we made the decision to snap up that chance when it arose in order to keep initial purchase costs as low as possible (paying £5K below market value).

But this wasn’t a rushed decision – we’ve spent since 2008 researching issues relating to the project’s viability and the possibilities for moorings. We’d already made good links with various departments of the council who offered us guidance and support about the process we’d need to follow to obtain permission.

The project itself was tabled at a River Ouse Safety Action Group in 2008 where it met with general approval. We were offered use of a permanent mooring near The Bonding Warehouse (subject to planning consent) by YorkBoat but this was unfortunately not large enough for our needs.

We also identified an excellent local architect in 2008 (DSP Architects) who have been keen supporters, offering professional guidance on the planning process throughout.

Having a mooring already secured pre-purchase would clearly have been the ideal scenario but the nature of the planning process meant that we were unable to do so. We were required to offer specifics (particularly dimensions) which were impossible to give with any degree of certainty until we’d found a specific barge.

Secured mooring

So we were in a difficult position of having to identify the barge before we could seek the permissions we needed. Having found Selby Tony we now have the detailed architectural drawings (including mooring structure) which will stand up to an application and this process is just about to start.

Of course there is a chance, as with any other application, that this will be rejected. This is why following initial works on the barge making her long-term watertight and, importantly, more saleable, we’ve now paused work to concentrate on the planning application.

If the worst happens and we’re not able to secure a suitable mooring, the barge will be sold and the proceeds used to pay back donors (on a pro rata basis if need be).

Funding uncertain

And although we’ve been granted “up to” £100,000 of EIF it’s by no means a certainty that we’ll receive that funding. When we initially applied we worked with the finance department of the council in looking at projected income for the project as well as how many jobs it would create and its impact on the local business community (suppliers and staff).

These figures were still relatively sketchy as we didn’t have a specific venue and therefore couldn’t make accurate predictions of income. However, the council agreed to the initial £25K but have laid out strict criteria for subsequent funding:

  1. City of York Council will not be the largest stakeholder in the project. In other words, the majority of finance must come from other sources.
  2. The director of the council’s customer and business support services (CBSS) has been delegated responsibility to make further payments only following a due diligence review of the Arts Barge Project’s Business Plan.

A completed, fully costed business case including a profit and loss projection, a summary setting out the capital cost of the restoration costs and how this will be funded, as well as the detailed supporting information which substantiates the figures. This will allow the director of CBSS to make an assessment of the financial viability of our organisation and form a view about key risks.

The business plan is almost complete – we’re now working with CGA accountants who have an excellent track record of working with arts-related organisations and a very realistic take on what we can expect to turn over once up and running.

Support growing

At the moment it’s looking extremely positive – we’ve already upped our estimate on the number of full time posts we’re likely to create in light of the increased capacity of the barge.

And support for the project is growing both from business and from individuals and groups. Importantly, council funding has increased this support by demonstrating confidence.

We’re absolutely committed to seeing the barge through to completion and to creating an arts venue that genuinely feels as though it belongs to everyone in the city and which we can be proud of well into the future.

For any further information please don’t hesitate to contact us.