Opinion: Reflecting on the legacy of councillor Tom Burns

Posted on - 3rd January, 2016 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Fishwick, Opinion, People, Preston Council
Councillor Tom Burns

Councillor Tom Burns

I can’t believe it’s almost two years since the death of my good friend and fellow Councillor Tom Burns.

I was sat in a Neighbourhood Planning meeting in the YMCA in Fishwick when the news broke. Tom had been ill for a few months but it was still unexpected. The council officers and residents at the meeting were as shocked as myself.

Tom’s family were devastated. His brother, Tom’s double, flew home from Australia to speak at the funeral. He commented that ‘no Burns has ever had a send off like this;’ The Neighbourhood Services team swept the streets of the funeral route spotless, unprompted by management; council staff lined Lancaster Road in tribute; the great and the good of Preston and beyond packed the stunning St. Wilfred’s church; and donations raised at the funeral for the kidney unit at Royal Preston Hospital topped one thousand pounds.

However, a wad of cash for a worthy cause is just a fraction of Tom’s legacy.

Two years year on, and the fruits of his labour are ripening. When Tom became cabinet member for arts, leisure and culture in 2011, the first wave of government cuts had started to bite; and as everyone knows, the Arts is always an easy target. Tom was personally heartbroken over redundancies in the Harris Museum. His entire portfolio, the leisure centres, Guild Hall and the Harris were under threat.

As warm and creative as Tom was, his business head took over, and he set his officers to work on the biggest benchmarking exercise I’ve ever seen. Tom was an engineer and had run his own company, a worker co-op model, before retirement. He had the officers produce a huge chart of comparable charges from leisure centres across the country. The chart was unfolded at an informal Cabinet meeting like an ordinance survey map. The conclusion was that the leisure centre pricing structure, in the new climate of austerity, was unsustainable.

The council’s attempts to keep the facilities affordable for those that need them meant that some of the charges were an absolute give-away. Tom and his officers produced a restructuring plan for that year’s budget that saved hundred’s of thousands of pounds and saved the leisure centres from closure. Despite Tom’s efforts, these facilities now face new threats from a wave of new gyms around Preston and another massive government grant cut to Preston Council.

His next major headache was the Harris; a nationally recognised building with award winning exhibitions that, naturally, is expensive to maintain and operate. More analysis showed that Preston’s Arts and Culture strategy was a fairly meaningless document gathering dust on a shelf and Preston was getting a fraction of the Arts Council funding that some other north-west towns and cities were winning. Tom was an amateur thespian, who wrote and directed his own, typically down-to-earth play about the slum clearances of the 1960’s. Tom knew that the Harris and the arts in Preston in general, needed to reach a more diverse audience to tick the right boxes for arts funding. Tom also argued that a revitalised arts and culture scene was essential for city centre regeneration.

So Tom and the officers came up with a new city centre programme of events, to build on the success of the Guild, based on the flag market. The first major event in 2013, being the Harris Flights, a hugely controversial addition to the Harris architecture both inside and outside of the council – but the flights were a massive success. Visits to the museum rocketed, the public gathered daily for free entertainment and people were talking about art. The programme is still developing but the recent rush of new bars and restaurants in the city centre is no coincidence. Underpinning Preston’s cultural revival is Tom’s ‘Cultural Framework’, a document that lays down how all the arts organisations in Preston should work together to diversify the cultural offer and multiply the funding into the city. 2015 saw something resembling a mini-Guild festival in Lancashire Encounter, delivered by various partners drawn together by the Cultural Framework. This pilot event, is the basis for realising Tom’s dream of increased Arts Council funding for Preston.

New frontage of the Guild Hall put up on the day Simon Rigby took over

The Guild Hall

The one issue that even Tom struggled to resolve was the Guild Hall. The council’s savings targets were just too high to allow further subsidy of the venue. Almost all the acceptable solutions needed funding. The last time I saw Tom, I had recommended that Labour group support the decision to talk to Simon Rigby. We had cross words and I never saw him again.

We fell out numerous times over the years and would be best of friends again in no time. I’m sure we would have been again. Simon Rigby offered the only solution that met the council’s desperate budget requirements, while promising a Guild Hall renaissance. The deal has produced a new arts fund of £250,000 and council arts funding of £98,000 per year. So far, Mr. Rigby seems as good as, if not better than his word…

I hope Tom would approve.

Martyn Rawlinson is the councillor for Fishwick and cabinet member for resources on Preston City Council

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