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Rochester Sweeps Festival and Medway Pride could face cuts as council tackles £12m overspend

Popular annual events and key community services are facing cutbacks in support as a council aims to plug a £12m hole in its finances.

The Rochester Sweeps Festival, Chatham Carnival and Medway Pride could join libraries and sports centres in having to manage with less cash.

Rochester Sweeps Festival 2022. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Rochester Sweeps Festival 2022. Picture: Barry Goodwin

There could also be reduced backing for attractions/ancient monuments, such as Rochester Castle, Guildhall Museum, Upnor Castle, Temple Manor, Eastgate House and Dickens’ Chalet.

As previously reported, Labour-led Medway Council is battling to balance the books with a massive overspend being predicted.

Potential cutbacks were outlined by culture and leisure portfolio holder, Cllr Harinder Mahil, this week at the regeneration, culture, and environment overview and scrutiny committee.

He told members that although it was important to maintain cultural events which draw people to Medway, difficult decisions will have to be made.

His department’s total budget this year was £17.5m, with £4.5m going to libraries and community hubs and £2m allocated to “cultural services”. However, there is a projected overspend of almost £1m being predicted.

Cllr Harinder Mahil explained that cutbacks will be made to services
Cllr Harinder Mahil explained that cutbacks will be made to services

It is not known how much Cllr Mahill is expected to lose from next year’s budget, but as his department offers services which are not legally required, it could face hefty reductions.

He added: “You have to look at what the offer is and is there a better way of doing this. I’ll be asking myself that question with each of the festivals because there’s a great variability in the number of visitors, and the broad appeal and the narrow appeal of all of these festivals.

“All need to be looked at in the round and how to provide a festival programme that is sustainable and sufficient.”

His report to the committee outlined events which have already taken place this year, such as Medway Pride, Chatham Carnival, and Rochester Sweeps Festival, as well as the Towns’ libraries and sports centres.

However, when committee members asked for reassurance these events and facilities would be protected, Cllr Mahil said he would do what he could but the financial situation meant there were no guarantees.

Rochester Castle
Rochester Castle

Cllr Matt Fearn (Con) asked: “You’ve mentioned the ancient monuments and these are the reason people visit Medway, also the 18 festivals which have reached out to a quarter of a million people.

“What assurances can you give us that you won’t cut these festivals going forward? We’ve heard threats of cuts due to budgetary pressures, so what kind of assurances can you give us?”

Cllr Mahil responded: “Ancient monuments do provide something that people will want to come and see and that does really open up the rest of Medway.

“There’s also a larger cultural offer, that is a cultural destination that we need to expand for Medway and part of that is providing a really strong festival programme.

“However, there are budgetary restraints that exist and that is something that we’re looking at. It’s under review at the moment.

Cllr David Field spoke at the meeting
Cllr David Field spoke at the meeting

“Let me be absolutely clear, I will be fighting hard to protect all the cultural offers that we have, festivals included, but as every other portfolio holder will tell you, we are under considerable financial pressure so we’re having to look at everything.”

The report detailed how Medway libraries and community hubs had positive approval ratings from users of 99% and their use had almost reached pre-pandemic levels.

Cllr David Field (Lab) asked about how these services could be protected.

He said: “Obviously we’re going to be looking at our budgets over the next few years. I’m really pleased to see the progress in terms of our libraries and community hubs.

“What I would be interested in is some kind of assurance about how, when we’re going through this difficult budgeting process, how we’re going to protect these assets and make sure people can access those services.”

Cllr Matt Fearn was concerned about the cuts
Cllr Matt Fearn was concerned about the cuts

He also asked about the possibility of using community hubs and libraries as heat banks for residents who experience fuel poverty and are unable to afford to heat their homes during the winter.

Cllr Mahil said: “It’s my number one priority to protect as much as we can, and although we’re going through and we’re taking difficult decisions where they need to be taken, that has to be balanced with what it is we stand to lose with each and every decision.”

He also added, in response to questions from committee members, that it was a goal to make sure all events and cultural offerings were self-sufficient as far as possible.

Cllr Mahil said it was already an ambition to make all sports centres cover their own costs, and this would be the same for festivals and other events.

He said: “It’s an approach we’re taking across the board. [We’re] having to look at what sort of decisions will be needed, what will that service look like to provide that.”

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