Arts Council `unfit to have lottery cash'

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The Independent Online
A CHARITY consortium which was to build a pounds 93m arts centre that would have transformed Bristol's waterfront is planning to sue the beleaguered Arts Council for pounds 2m after declaring the latter "unfit" to handle lottery money.

The Harbourside Centre on Bristol docks was to be a spectacular all-glass arts centre with three concert halls and a 2,300-seat auditorium funded partly by a pounds 58m grant of lottery money. However, the Arts Council withdrew its offer of the grant last year and the project collapsed.

The charity consortium, comprising Bristol City Council and local businesses, now claims that the council has also "reneged" on an earlier pledge to pay the pounds 4.3m cost of designing and developing the project before building began. The charity, Harbourside Centre, says the Arts Council has paid just pounds 2m of the development costs which leaves it owing pounds 2.25m to the German designer of the project, Stefan Behnisch, the engineering group Ove Arup and a number of Bristol companies.

Louis Sherwood, the chairman of Harbourside Centre, said the Arts Council's behaviour had been "disgraceful". He said: "In what is a clear breach of contract, they have refused to pay over money that was fully approved by the council. I think it is absolutely intolerable and indefensible behaviour by a public body to award a grant and then simply go back on it. It is duplicity.

"The current officials of the council are not fit to administer the spending of lottery money. There is so much backbiting, personal jealousy and special pleading going on inside the council that it has lost its integrity."

Peter Hewitt, chief executive of the Arts Council, claimed that Harbourside had failed to meet conditions attached to the awarding of the grant. "I am absolutely confident that we have acted properly and responsibly," he said.

After 12 months of negotiations with Harbourside, the council has offered to pay pounds 650,000 of the amount owed, enough to pay creditors 25p in the pound.

The Arts Council was severely criticised earlier this year in a parliamentary audit committee report for its poor administration of lottery funds. The report said the council had failed to maintain financial control over a succession of projects, including the Royal Opera House and Sadler's Wells, and had funded projects which were unsustainable in the long term.