The Tory leader on Lancaster City Council has accused Labour of "blatant politicisation" of the Platform after the council decided to keep on running the venue.
Councillor Andrew Gardiner, in a statement sent to Beyond Radio, questioned why the Labour group were "claiming to have saved" the Morecambe concert venue when they were "part of an administration wanting to close the Platform" in the first place.
His comments came after last week's announcement that the Platform would remain open as an entertainment venue, under the management of the city council.
The council had originally planned to pull out of running the Marine Road Central arts centre by the end of March 2024 due to budget cuts, and were seeking a private operator to take it on instead.
In response to the Conservative leader's remarks, the local Labour group said the decision to cease operating the Platform was made prior to the May elections when the cabinet "did not have a strong Morecambe voice".
Councillor Gardiner (pictured below) said he would be raising "serious questions" about what he called the "blatant politicisation of a public asset".
"How on earth can the Labour Party that were part of an administration wanting to close the Platform, now claim that they have saved it?" he said.
"It also runs contrary to what has previously been decided by the city council in confirming it wishes to maintain the funding and running of the Platform."
Councillor Gardiner also questioned plans announced by Labour councillors last week, to try to make the Platform 'cost-neutral' by raising funds through a new membership scheme and Friends group.
He said the "the so-called ‘Friends of the Platform’ group is not a registered company or charity and, although it was intimated it would co-ordinate fundraising activities and grant bids in the future, the Platform is in fact owned by the tax payers of Morecambe, as controlled by Lancaster City Council".
"Without doubt, there seems to be a conflict of interest with Labour city councillors," he said.
"They will clearly have to disclose this now as an interest and recuse themselves from any future decisions regarding the Platform.
"I am also surprised at the involvement of County Councillor Lizzi Collinge. As Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate, I would have thought she would have been more fastidious with regard to her research about the Platform and ascertaining the facts, before allowing her name to be associated with this political debacle. This is, at best, fake news and demonstrates the shambolic way the Labour administration have historically left the finances of the City Council in. I will be raising all these matters at the next council meeting.”
A spokesperson for the Labour group said: "The decision that Lancaster City Council would cease to operate the Platform was made prior to the May elections.
"This council was not led by Labour and the Cabinet did not have a strong Morecambe voice.
"After May's elections, when Labour considerably increased the number of seats it held in Morecambe and Heysham and took back the leadership of the council, a new Cabinet with different voices and opinions was formed.
"This new Cabinet was very clearly of the view that it did not wish to risk the Platform being lost to the people of Morecambe as a cherished performance venue and felt that the best way to achieve this was to keep it in-house.
"However, changes clearly needed to be made to help it cover its costs.
"A suggested Friends group is one of several revenue-raising and cost-reducing suggestions which will now be explored.
"It is undeniably the case that the campaign to save the Platform was led by Labour but gathered the support of councillors from other political groups as well."
County Councillor Collinge, who'd joined fellow Labour councillors in celebrating the news about the Platform (she is pictured below, second right, with Labour city councillors Matthew Black, Catherine Potter and David Whitaker) said on Thursday: “It is important to me that not only is the venue available for touring artists, but that local groups can use it too.
"The Platform runs well attended, high quality performances by local musicians, and gives young people the opportunity to perform on a big stage in a large, attractive and professional venue – it’s an inspiring, true community asset.
"I am absolutely delighted that the Platform has been saved and will continue to offer these invaluable opportunities for local people to entertain and be entertained, something so central to the whole personality of Morecambe. I’m so pleased that the uncertainty for the staff team, so valued by the local community, is over and that their jobs are safe.”
THE PLATFORM CONTROVERSY - THE STORY SO FAR
The Platform opened in 1997 as an arts venue inside Morecambe's former railway station and is operated by Lancaster City Council.
The news that the Platform was under threat was first publicly announced at a Lancaster City Council meeting on January 25 2023.
Councillor Anne Whitehead of the Labour group, then-cabinet member for finance, told fellow councillors that the Platform's current use as an arts and concert venue was also no longer viable due to "escalating costs and resource constraints".
Councillor Whitehead said that "alternative uses" would be sought for the former railway station, after the end of October 2023.
She said: "Whilst The Platform has hosted many popular and successful cultural events over its years of direct operation by the council, escalating costs and resource constraints mean the current operating model is no longer viable.
"Alternative uses will be sought for the building whilst the council continues to support Morecambe's rich cultural offer in every possible way, particularly as it accelerates over the coming years as the Eden Project Morecambe takes shape."
At the time, the Lancaster City Council cabinet was led by Councillor Caroline Jackson, of the Green group. Labour was the biggest group on the council, but the Greens had the majority of councillors on the cabinet (five, councillors Jackson, Tim Hamilton-Cox, Kevin Frea, Dave Brookes and Gina Dowding) and Labour had three (Anne Whitehead, Sandra Thornberry and Jason Wood), with two independents (Tricia Heath of the MBIs, and Cary Matthews of Bay Independent Group).
It was also announced that the Platform was costing £150,000 a year to run.
There was an immediate public outcry over the threat to the future of the much-loved venue, and online petitions were set up, including by Massive Wagons rock singer Baz Mills (pictured below).
Then, at a cabinet meeting on February 7, it was announced that additional budget savings had been found, meaning the council could continue to run the Platform until the end of March 2024.
Councillor Whitehead said at the time: “Our intention was always to keep the Platform available as a venue. We recognise just how committed local people are to its future for community events as well as entertainment so we are happy to use this funding to maintain the programme to 2024.
“Alongside the continued Platform programme, we will undertake discussions with external parties who might be interested in taking on the operation of the Platform and we will look at ways we can reduce the gap between our subsidy and the income generated.”
Councillor Jackson (pictured below) said at the time that she was "disillusioned" at having to make cuts but "we are committed to trying to reverse them".
"We may not be able to manage the same model but we still want to have a Platform offering," she said in February.
The budget proposals were voted through by full council, unanimously, on February 22, with support from all political groups.
Councillor Gardiner said later that Conservatives had voted in favour of the budget in error.
After the local elections in May 2023, Labour remained the largest group on Lancaster City Council.
A new council leader, Councillor Phillip Black of Labour, was then chosen after a deal between Labour, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Labour now has the highest number of cabinet members with five (councillors Black, Jean Parr, Jason Wood, Catherine Potter and Joanne Ainscough), the Greens have four (now deputy leader Caroline Jackson, Tim Hamilton-Cox, Gina Dowding and Nick Wilkinson) and the Lib Dems have one (Peter Jackson).
During the summer, the council officially announced they were trying to find a new operator for the Platform to run it from April 2024 onwards.
Public support for the Platform continued to grow. At a meeting of Lancaster City Council on November 8, resident Sue Saunders spoke out in support of the venue.
Afterwards, Councillor Catherine Potter (pictured below), the new cabinet member for the visitor economy who was elected to the council in May, said she would "do my very best to ensure the Platform continues to provide the same range of entertainment as it does at the moment".
Then on November 23, Lancaster City Council announced that talks with three interested parties who wanted to take on the Platform had ended, and the council had instead decided to carry on running the venue itself.
The Labour group then revealed that a new approach to running the Platform could involve a membership scheme and Friends group to generate money.
They said: "The new business model will operate a membership scheme similar to those run by the Dukes and the Grand Theatre in Lancaster. People can become members of the Platform, supporting the venue and giving it a reliable source of income. In return, they will receive discounted tickets for events. The team at the Platform will also be supporting the creation of a ‘Friends of the Platform’ group to coordinate fundraising activities and grants bids. These activities should generate tens of thousands of pounds of additional revenue to safeguard the venue as the profile of Morecambe grows as a destination with the advent of the Eden Project."
They said a letter supporting the Platform had been signed by Morecambe and Heysham councillors from all political parties, saying this had been co-ordinated by Labour councillor David Whitaker.
Councillor Potter, speaking on Beyond Radio on Friday November 24, said full details of the Friends group had "not yet been devised".
"Many cultural venues have Friends groups associated with them," she said.
"I've spoken to a number of music promoters and musicians and everybody I've spoken to is keen to become a Friend.
"The decision has only just been made to do the U-turn on the Platform. Give us a bit of time to decide precisely how things will work in the future."