Where are the Sub Rooms consultations?

There’s been a striking lack of consultation on the future of the Sub Rooms. The Council’s interpretation is that the public favour “continued access”, rather than public ownership. But there is good evidence that a large majority want it to remain in public ownership.

We know the council is under huge financial pressure. That’s presumably why a secretive group has already recommended the council should accept an Ecotricity bid to pay £300,000 for the Sub Rooms and the square.

The 1910 General Election results being announced at the Sub Rooms. The square has been at the heart of Stroud life for 183 years
The 1910 General Election results being announced at the Sub Rooms. The square has been at the heart of Stroud life for 183 years.
From SNJ website. Copyright unknown.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere (e.g. here and here), it’s not just the workings of the committees that have been hidden from view. The official consultation process has also been patchy and secretive. Here’s what we know:

The pre-review consultation

An online survey, termed the “pre-review consultation”, happened in November and December 2016. A summary of the results was published as Appendix D of Agenda Item 8 of the S&R Committee meeting of Jan 2017.

It showed massive support for the idea of Stroud District Council keeping and running the venue. The author of the report even expressed surprise at the scale of this support:

Responses were enormously positive and passionate about the venue and service. However, there was an unexpected amount of support for keeping the venue not just public, but within SDC control … Only 2 [out of 126] people suggested private ownership should be considered, but still as a community arts venue.

However, the summary by the S&R Committee in their Jan 2017 meeting was (my emphasis):

For preference, any solution should not only improve cost effectiveness for the public, but also seek to retain its availability to the public for cultural use

This interpretation is wide of the mark: the feedback presented in the report was very clear that it should be owned by the public, not made available to the public.

The “information session” in February

This was a drop-in event at the Sub Rooms, where the future options were presented. Written responses were gathered, but no summary or results were published. (UPDATE: since this article was published, the council published all three bids and part of the February consultation report on their website)

Luckily, we’ve obtained a copy of the report (we’ve been told it briefly appeared on the Stroud District Council website, and then disappeared again).

The report found a similar pattern to the pre-review consultation, with attendees:

significantly leaning towards keeping the venue public with it’s current mixed offer. Many believe firmly that the building belongs to the public and cannot ‘morally’ be sold…

Of the 106 written comments they gathered, just two can be interpreted as supporting private ownership. In what appears to be another generous interpretation of this data, the report states (my emphasis):

There was also a significant acceptance of financial pressures, however, and as long as the venue remained open and offered accessible entertainment/community facilities, it was not important WHO ran it, but SDC should protect the leasehold to prevent future sale/loss from the community

(It’s interesting that the report notes the leasehold should be protected. As we’ve noted elsewhere, even the square in front of the Sub Rooms is apparently included in the sale, but we still don’t know anything about how either the building or the square might be protected).

Other surveys

We’ve aware of two other surveys, and a petition. In the Town Council’s research, 66 out of 67 respondents wanted it “retained as a community venue”. In a Stroud News & Journal poll, 88 per cent voted for the Sub Rooms to be run by the district council or the community. Finally, a petition submitted to the council in April saw over 1,700 people call for a “publicly owned community venue” and called on councillors to “work with the community to secure its future”. This is the largest petition to the Council that we can find since 2011.

In conclusion, all the evidence indicates decisive support for keeping the Sub Rooms within public ownership, but the committees have interpreted this more narrowly as support for public access rather than ownership. Perhaps when the final report is published (one day before the final “information session” on 18 November – put it in your diary!), we will know why.

Is this feedback biased?

There’s a big problem with surveys like this: it’s likely that the people who respond do not represent the entire population of Stroud District. It’s impossible to know how far this is true, but we can attempt to make some guesses.

1. Five Valleys bias?

The first way the feedback might be biased is that it leans heavily towards Stroud residents. Perhaps they are more likely to support the Sub Rooms, whereas those who don’t are less likely to respond.

Stroud District (map) is much more than the town of Stroud. It covers a large area that includes the larger towns of Cam, Dursley and Wootton-under-Edge, the rural fringes of Gloucester, and the villages of the Vale of Berkeley.

If we count “Stroud proper” as the Five Valleys area (stretching between Stonehouse and Thrupp, Nailsworth and Whiteshill) it accounts for 55 per cent of the population. Cam, Dursley, and Wooton-under-Edge are the next biggest towns, and make up a further 19 per cent. The remaining 26 per cent are from rural areas such as Bisley, or the wards along the River Severn.

It would be wrong to assume that only people from the Stroud area care about the Sub Rooms. Raw data is not available, but this map (from the Council’s Sub Rooms review page) shows concentrations of visitors in all the other main population areas like Dursley and Wotton-under-Edge (and quite a number from Gloucester):

Where do Sub Rooms visitors live?
Where do Sub Rooms visitors live?.
Published by Stroud District Council

Even if we make an extravagant assumption that every person who’s never visited the Sub Rooms is against public ownership, there’s probably still a substantial majority in favour of public ownership across the District. And the lack of any vocal opposition to the idea in these surveys suggests that if people don’t feel positive about it, they tend to feel neutral.

This interpretation tallies with the 2016 Budget Consultation. It showed that funding the Sub Rooms with council money would come near the bottom of a list of priorities such as refuse collection, homelessness, and street cleaning. But even so, 64 per cent of respondents ranked the Sub Rooms funding priority as medium, high, or don’t know.

2. High income bias?

Another bias in these surveys is that people with the time and money to attend events are more likely to respond. Indeed, according to the “Acornanalysis of Sub Room attendees carried out by the Council, the majority of Sub Rooms visitors are relatively wealthy compared with the population as a whole.

However, there is still a wide range of different income levels represented, with about 50 per cent outside the wealthiest categories, and 20 per cent coming from the lowest income categories:

Acorn categories for Sub Rooms attendees
Acorn categories for Sub Rooms attendees.
Published by Stroud District Council

Conclusion

Every measure we’ve looked at shows a majority in favour of some form of direct public control. In the official pre-review consultation, the respondents were nearly unanimous on this. Even if we discounted this support to allow for bias (say by 30 per cent), it seems unlikely that this majority would be eroded.

The council’s interpretation of this as support for a venue that is merely “accessible” or “available” to the public appears to be wrong.

What you can do

Write to your councillor here. Some questions you might want to include:

  • Why was the consultation process so limited?
  • Has the decision making process been lawful?
  • Will the council publish all bids, reports on the sale, T&R minutes or notes, and the final T&R briefing document, well before the next drop in event?
  • How will the building, square, and public services be protected for public use in the event of a private sale?
  • Why won’t there be a full council vote on the decision?

Come to the “information event” on Saturday 18 November, from 9.30am at the Sub Rooms.

Attend the S&R Committee’s vote on the Sub Rooms on 5th December, from 7.30pm at Stroud Council, Ebley Mill.