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Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Letter to our Prime Minister Cockell

Matthew Palmer... you asked the Dame to put up the letter to your witless leader. Here it is...hardly deranged. Though derangement is something your council colleagues believe you suffer from!!!
Dear Cllr Cockell
I wrote to you in very clear terms in 2008 objecting to the Cabinet decision to set up Chelsea Care. As a businessman it was clear to me that the venture was doomed to failure and I also told you that the Council should not be dabbling in the risk business. Now we know that the venture racked up losses of £1 million and was liquidated in 2011.

I am writing to you again to place on record my strong objection to the Cabinet decision last night to continue funding Holland Park Opera via the new wheeze of a self standing company. Like Chelsea Care before, it is clear to me that this will end in tears. It is the risk business again and lies outside the competence of  local Government. Opera is a very high cost and high risk art form for a select minority. It should not by funded by council tax and it is wrong to make trade off decisions against the needs of the poor and vulnerable. It is also unacceptable that resident objections, and Scrutiny Committee cautions, were not mentioned at all at the Cabinet meeting. Residents are, after all, pumping in approximately £1.5 million of support every year from our council tax.

Cllr Paget-Brown stated that the objective of the new strategy and the new self standing company is to reduce risk. The new Board will be given three years to become self funding. But the subsidy has increased relentlessly from £100k ten years ago to nearly £1 million last year (FOI data). The Friends currently raise £250k per year. The Chairman elect of the new company said last night that he will hire a fundraiser in order to increase the Friends contribution. A fundraiser will cost him £150k. And a self standing company will require a Director of Administration (consider the Royal Opera House Organisation chart). That is another £100k. And the staff who are currently on local Government pay and conditions (eight permanent and more temporary staff during the season) will have their rations scaled back to match market rates. Dissatisfaction and perhaps attrition will follow. The slightest signs of wobble will destabilise Investec and their £200k sponsorship. You have created a huge risk downside.

In fact, the current set up is the minimum risk option! And the elephant in the room was never discussed. What happens when the self funding wish does not happen?

HPO should never have been allowed to happen. It is a one off that is not appropriate for a local authority. Council tax funding should cease and let the market decide. Options include closure; the emergence of a rich patron; or absorption by a full scale operation like Covent Garden who might be able to grow and nurture it.

It was disingenuous for Tot Brill and other councillors to chirp on about "affordable opera" for local residents. The minimum price point for tickets at Covent Garden is £9 which compares with £12 for HPO.

A copy of this note goes to my Ward councillors and also the Chief Executive.


Donald Cameron


  1. A first class letter.....and no response from the ill educated clown Cockell. So sad at his life that he thinks of himself as Prime Minister out David Cameron!!

  2. This is a very disturbing letter. The Council clearly wishes the opera to continue but is worried about the amount of council tax that it is taking. The proposed solution seems to be based on very muddled thinking.

    And the prospect of a good outcome seems remote

  3. This excellent letter goes to the heart of all that is wrong in the Rotten Borough.

    Councillors are elected to serve residents. Instead they permit our money to be thrown at vanity projects at the whim of the Leader and his cronies. It is perfectly obvious that HPO is another financial disaster in the making.

    Votes are needed to release Council funds. So when will the majority of our craven Conservative councillors publicly vote to reject such waste?

  4. What a muddle the Cabinet has got itself into. Again.

    Our Town Hall seems to be straying too often from its responsibility to deliver basic services for residents in a timely and efficient manner

  5. Lord Kensington25 March 2012 at 11:57

    Some fresh thinking here. Clear thinking too.

    Must talk to my friends

  6. What a pain this fellow Cameron is

  7. Which one? 11.58

  8. Cabinet Members should think long and hard about this one. Because when the whole mess implodes in 2014 or 2015 one of them will be Leader. Cllr Cockell will mercifully have moved on.

    Rather than wait to have the mess land in their lap, better to lance the boil now

  9. The parallel with Chelsea Care is clear. The Council has created (and will continue to fund) a higher cost and higher risk structure to deliver the same opera

  10. Person Familiar With The Situation25 March 2012 at 12:52

    Cllr Cockell is buying time so that he can move on safely before the whole thing crashes to the ground

  11. I wonder of the Friends understand what they are getting into?

    "Lambs to the slaughter" as Ian Hiscox used to say. (Cllr Coleridge will understand the reference)

  12. Cllr Lightfoot has an interest in cats. He is making inquiries about cat insurance.

    Clarification from bloggers welcome

  13. I am a journalist in the world of arts and classical music. In looking into this story, I was directed to this "blog" by Google and because I had also heard subsequently from a colleague at a London newspaper that it was claiming to offer information about excessive expenditure. I have also read the report that was presented to the council last week. I have to say that the posts and comments I have read and this letter are so embarrassingly innaccurate it is laughable. Where has the author acquired his "information"? The author clearly has no idea whatsoever about running anything, let alone an arts or opera company, he has no idea about salary levels, or structures or just about anything at all.

    It is ridiculous. £150,000 for a fundraiser? More that the "Administrative Director" (a what?) on £100,000?

    As a journalist in this field, I spend a great deal of time looking at arts companies, including opera companies and festivals. I read thier accounts and I get plenty of information. The simple fact is that Opera Holland Park is considered, among my colleagues, to be one of the best run, most interesting and most efficient opera companies in the country. They produce international standard work on an incredibly small budget (yes, small) and are now considered a vital part of the fabric of the UK' s lyric arts scene. Personally, I am not a fan of much of their specialised repertoire but I saw their Rigoletto last summer and was astonished by it.

    Whether a council should fund it is another issue entirely, but the way in which this blog appears to want to destroy something so successful and so hugely supported is a really depressing thing to witness. Especially when there is reference to the mind-numbingly profligate national opera houses (whose £9 seats are hardly worth having so you have clearly not sat in them). If you want to see waste I can show you waste! As somebody who reports on and is frequently infuriated by profligacy in the arts world, I can assure you that on a value for money basis, OHP must be in the top ten opera companies in Europe. If not higher.

    You should stick to the facts to make your objections otherwise you sound hysterical and lose all credibility.

  14. What a brilliant political strategist Sir Merrick is.

    Buy time so that HPO collapses on another Leader's watch. And build it around the Friends so that they get the blame.

    Brilliant. Brilliant

  15. Kensington Resident25 March 2012 at 15:01

    A very cynical comment 14.59.

    The Friends are people of goodwill who raise money for something that they believe in. They are not Opera administrators.

    The reference to "Lambs to the slaughter" is well judged. Ian Hiscox was a Lloyds Members Agent

  16. Journalist, your points are noted.

    There is no bad word from me about the tremendous achievement of Michael Volpe and his team and for what they have done on a relatively slim budget.

    The issue is about whether funding for this sort of enterprise should come from council tax. My estimate is that about £10 million has gone in so far, it is rising, and another £4.5 million will be required in the next three years. We can argue about the numbers, but it is a big amount of money that is not being spent elsewhere. On care for the elderly, for example. Many of us think that it is not the best use for council tax when compared with competing programmes.

    Please advise us what figures should be factored in for the cost of a fundraiser (salary plus office support and back up and pension) and what cost should be factored in for an Administrative Director. Someone will need to set and manage a budget and attend to the whole raft of administrative pressures like maintaining and replacing the tent and ancillary accomodation.

    Until now Volpe and Clutton have had a free hand to make their choices and call the shots. Of course they have done well. But in a cottage industry setting without financial and artistic disciplines. This is about to change.

    In Volpe's own blog you will find the information that an Administrative Director was appointed some years ago but it did not work out. He was let go. It was too interfering.

    I started out in the £9 Covent Garden seats when that was all that I could afford. But I got the opera experience. The £12 seats at HPO give a better view, but eight times out of ten it is raining and cold and the wind whistles around. Neither place is perfect.

    Please share more insights with us. If HPO is a "top ten value for money" opera, and the reputation is high (which I know it to be) then the prospects for an orderly transfer to a rich Patron or to another opera organisation must be good. Surely, this is the route to pursue?

    Please be aware that FOIs demonstrate that the full cost of supporting the opera is very much bigger than the annual grant that is "announced" by the Council

  17. 14:44
    London you live in RBK&C? If you do then the focus of your attention should be whether taxpayers, who already have seen their tax squandered on failures, should be forced to splurge money on a non core council activity.
    If you are not an RBK&C taxpayer you might ponder whether you are properly positioned to give an objective view.
    Taxpayers in this borough are the only ones able to give a legitimate view on how their tax be spent.
    If the Royal Court theatre comes cap in hand are you suggesting that we local taxpayers should support it?

  18. What a pain this Cameron is?
    Yes, because he shines the light on some very corrupt councillors-and they know who they are....

  19. Your only accurate comment is the one that questions a council's role in funding the arts. That is a right of course but your interpretation of the company is poor, with all due respect.

    As I understand it, and I have discussed this at length with people more knowledgeable on the matter than I, Volpe and Cutton have created and grown this company and I would imagine they will be the executives. Volpe is very good, it would seem, at getting money out of people and companies. I cannot imagine there being anybody coming in additionally other than the board of directors who are all unpaid - the normal way of things. If they intend to recruit somebody in development (fundraiser) it would cost about 40,000 for a good one. I would think the Friends also have their own staff for this too.

    What will be important is the business plan and the budgets put forward in the final report (which is in November according to reports). The charity commission will have an interest in those too. What is clear is that with a very big supporter base two extremely experienced individuals at the helm and a vibrant Friends organisation, the entity does, in my view stand a very good chance of success. I don't personally know the board members but one is a very fine administrator (Chris Cotton, CEO of the RAH). What is clearly not on the agenda - and nor should it be - is a sudden exponential growth. At least that is what the council report would suggest.

    Anyway, I have other things to do and am happy to leave this to you. I will wait eagerly for the final report, however.

  20. I assume the new body will be chaired by David Colver and this is encouraging. The problem is that Cockell has form. He even forced Up Yours to delete part of his report on Chelsea.Care. No one trusts anything that has his finger prints on it.

  21. The journalist could do HPO a favour and publicise its plight. Bring the situation to the attention of a wider audience and possibly a rich patron

    Target Vivian Duffield

  22. We should not get carried away too much about the excellence of HPO. The productions are usually good. But there are distractions. Like bad weather whilst sitting in an open tent The wind and rain can be a powerful rival to the orchestra.

    And the peacocks mating in the park (which they often do) is an aural challenge

  23. It seems that the issue is whether to fund HPO from council tax, or not. Cllr Cockell and his Cabinet have been rather high handed (as usual) and are bunging £1.5 million a year to the opera on the side.And every now and again they blow £1 million plus on a new tent.

    But now he has been found out.

    If the abuse continues, then the low cost and low risk route is to carry on with the present arrangement. The Council should not invent another high cost Chelsea Care type operation to run the opera.

  24. Hornet's Nest

    As a matter of fact I am a resident (in the north of the borough too) and I happen to believe that councils should invest in GOOD cultural provision. In my view this is exceptional value for money and I believe in the principal of cultural provision by government - national or local. That is my opinion. But because of what I do for a living, I am also able to be objective about it and have experience of the wider picture. My only caveat is that the provision of culture should be of a high quality, accessible and good value. Do you have any idea how much councils up and down the country spend on poorly attended, not very good theatres and other arts events? Putting aside the politics and looking simply at the issue of expenditure for a moment, it is quite a remarkable achievement for a council to have given birth to and nurtured something as remarkably good and important as this entity. That is a fact.

    If you believe that money spent on arts could be spent on something else, then that is your view and it is not an uncommon one either. But it seems to me that I am being more objective than some on here who have been quoting figures that are simply incorrect. The obvious conclusion to draw in this matter is that the artform itself is what irks people and all of the associations with it. From what I know, few of those stereotypes apply in this case. Personally, I happen to believe that councils can and should make quality contributions to our cultural landscape. Opera is not my favourite cultural intake but I do consider that RBKC have something of which they should be proud because I have looked into some extraordinarily poor and far more expensive enterprises by local councils.

    But I say again, if you have a firm view that a council should not be involved in this sort of thing then nothing I can say will change that. Perhaps some of you should get involved and assist the company in its endeavours to ensure its success?

  25. 10:56
    If it is a question of funds going into opera when down the road there exist two world class opera houses, or looking after the elderly and disabled, my vote-and I imagine that of most caring people, would be that the council should not be pouring vast amounts of money into HPO at a time of financial hardship. But then I imagine you are one of those arts journos who believe that Government, national and local should be pouring money into the arts! Typically unrealistic....

  26. Putting public cash into the arts is a very good thing. But we do not have unlimited capital. There are a huge number of competing prioritues and responsible choices need to be made.

    In this situation the tried and tested method is to appoint a specialist body to handle Government funding for the Arts. We have done this. It is called the Arts Council. That is where HPO should go and make their case. If the offering is so compelling from a cost benefit point of view, that will stand them in good stead.

    The other avenue is private funding. Most of the garden operas at great houses in Britain exist because there is a rich patron behind it. There are many rich people in Kensington and Chelsea.

    At the most elite end of the scale there are high prices, full houses, and NO SUBSIDY. Glyndebourne is an example of that.

    The Council repeatedly makes the point that its purpose in funding Holland Park is "affordable opera". Well that does not wash. There is cheaper opera at Covent Garden - currently the world's leading opera house playing to full houses. There is nothing more compelling than that in the opera world

  27. FURIOUS resident26 March 2012 at 14:58

    Residents are angry because of the lack of transparency. The true scale of spending tax payers money has been misreported and underreported. It took a series of FOI probes to find out the truth.

    The stated purpose of the spending is false. There are cheaper alterantives than HPO around the corner.

    The relentless ten fold increase in tax payer subsidy over ten years from £100k to £1 million per year has been concealed.

    In short, residents don't like to be duped. This is the hallmark of the Cockell regime.

    So lets start with a gesture. No more free HPO tickets for councillors. They at least can affod to go. At least one councillor, Cllr Blakeman, insists on paying for her "free ticket". Good for her.

    And then lets make a formal application to the Arts Council for funding for HPO. And publish the results. Lets get some sense into all of this.

  28. At last!!

    The muppets are muppeting

  29. A step up to non-violent, direct action is needed to oppose the Pootin regime.
    Everyone knows that the Hornet is the real power in the Rotten Borough now.
    Those willing to assist in returning democracy to K and C gather in the Public Gallery at the next Council Meeting on Wednesday 18th April.
    People get ready.......

  30. I am sorry but your caricature of the two opera houses is silly. If you consider them more affordable that Holland Park then you are not looking and you cannot be taken seriously.
    The Arts Council? That is in a mess and already gives fifty million a year to those two "affordbale" houses down the road!

  31. Retired Chief Executive26 March 2012 at 20:00

    I have hired a Fund Raiser or two in my time and £150k per year seems a reasonable ball park to me. A good guy will ask for £100k salary and you need to add 30% for overheads (pension, desk, telephone, health and Social Security) and then another £15k, say, for a shared secretary and he will want a £20k expense account. Thats already through the barrier.

    If a contract person is used instead they will charge £1k per day (that's £340k per year allowing for Saturdays and Sundays off) and they will inist on a £30k expense account. Thats £370k.

    If our journo chappie can find a fundraiser for £40k (thats a £28k salary before the overhead) then he is a magician. Graduates in London now start at £30k and our fund raiser needs to be able to sit across a Five Star dining table with the rich and mighty to ask for their money. They need to feel that the fundraiser is "one of them".

    You need a big operation to support a fund raiser. Not small scale stuff like HPO.

    The Chairman elect of NEWCO told the Cabinet that he intends to hire a fundraiser to make HPO self funding. My guess is that Mr Cameron heard this information and was startled. Nothing else was forthcoming so Cameron made a guess at the cost. I think it was an informed guess

    People of goodwill such as Patrons are a different matter altogether. They "cost" nothing. They just give their own money like Vivian Duffield did for Covent Garden. But the Chairman does not have such people in his back pocket. He said he will hire a fundraiser

  32. 19.14 please look on the HPO website and the Covent Garden website

    You can buy a ticket for £9 at Covent Garden and £12 at HPO.

  33. 19:14
    Do you not understand? If the majority group had included in their manifesto an intention to pump millions into Holland Park Opera, whilst leaving front line services to be cut or closed down the reaction would have been sheer horror and disbelief. You might love the opera, but don't expect us all to pick up the tab. And I very much doubt that the majority of attendees come from the dispossessed segment of the Rotten Borough. Read the comments here...the majority don't like the way that Cockell-determined to show he is a cultured man-has foisted this huge financial burden on residents.

  34. Development people don't only have to deal with the sort of people you are discussing. A good, professional development and sponsorship person will be able to do such things at the level that commercial sponsorships are often done; ie at director level. From the data I have seen, the new company needs to raise approximately 350k per year in comercial sponsorship if you take into account the council's "grant". They also have Volpe himself who seems to do quite well already, as well as their directors and many other donors. I just dug out the programme from last season. In the back are thousands of names of Friends and then other lists of larger scale donors. They also had two individual chorus donors. There are some very significant names in their "family" already. They are not trying to find millions of pounds. They generate a great deal of money of their own already through ticket sales too. In theory, when you look at it, they have, in fact, no funding gap with the council grant and the model is sound. The only issue is what they choose to spend additional to what they do now. I have looked up some of the people named as interim board members and these people have very serious careers behind them. They are being well advised.

    The fact remains, the council's report talks about a fixed sum grant. How the company choose to spend that money, along with their income from other sources (and the grant appears to be a small percentage?) is the business of the company and the board and one presumes the charity commission too. The council also talks of a strict service level agreement too. It seems to me that people should wait until the final report and the terms of the separation, as well as the business plan, before making assumptions about costs - the company's or the councils. After all, the company will be independent of the council and will be a not for profit organisation. If it fails, it fails. And surely, if the business plan is not robust, the council will not proceed with the separation? This really is all quite plain and contained within the report. Anyway, I have spent rather more time on this than I intended. Interesting nevertheless.

    Ps 13.03
    I believe the government, national and local should invest WELL in the arts and culture of this country. I can assure you that the Arts Council, pro rata get nothing like the same value as RBKC appear to be getting from OHP. Therefore, in my objective opinion, they are investing very well indeed in something that is popular and successful and credible. I have just looked at their website and see thousands of tickets at £12 and was also gobsmacked to see that they give over a 1000 seats to young people FREE and 500 to over sixties FREE at ordinary performances too. To be honest, such a thing on that scale is unheard of and I simply cannot see how it can be criticised. Frankly, it is an incredible model and I certainly want to look into it more when they release further plans and data. Indeed, I may just approach them to do a piece on how remarkable they appear to be! As a well established journalist, in the meantime, I am consequently reluctant to identify myself since I suspect Mssrs Volpe and Clutton will be banging my door down!

    Of course, the caveat remains - if you don't think any money should be spent on the arts then fair enough but there is no need to caricature and embellish when making that argument. As a principle, it is strong enough to stand on its own I would have thought.

    And one final word, it really is not credible to compare Glyndebourne. The ticket prices and whole culture of that place are the opposite to what OHP are clearly trying to be. And seem to have succeeded in being too...


    While we have this shameful statistic, Council taxpayers' money should not be spent on the arts. There are undernourished children and pensioners living in fuel poverty afraid to turn on their heating.

    Fix that first.

  36. 20.46 tells us that the Council is giving away 1000 free opera tickets to children in prosperous Holland Park while it is closing a home in N Kensington for backward children which it can no longer afford to run.

    Interesting set of dynmics

  37. 20:46 are you sure you are what you say you are-a well established arts journalist. Using such ill educated expressions as 'gobsmacked' seems not to fit with your self description. Read and understand whet people here are saying about priorities, rathret than acting as a poor pr to Mr Volpe.
    There are malnourished children in this Borough and vital services ciut to the bone. In not one of your selfish and self centred posts have you referred to the fact.Says much about you.

  38. It needs to be said again. And shouted loudly

    Anyone in Kensington and Chelsea can buy an opera ticket at Covent Garden for £9.

    And it is only around the corner

  39. Journalist seems to have a strange agenda. And certainly a chip on his shoulder about Covent Garden and Glyndebourne. Maybe he feels that life owes him more than he has been able to achieve

    Regarding his comments about Glyndebourne, I have heard at least two K&C Cabinet members (including the Leader) say on a number of different occasions that they aspire to a "Glyndebourne" in Holland Park. In the last couple of years elaborate picnic and dining facilities have been added to the tent and more and more dinner jackets are turning up.

    Holland Park is a lovely setting and the aspiration to "do a Glyndebourne" is magnificent. But not with council tax!

    Rich people love opera. Vivian Duffield gave £12 million of her own money to Covent Garden and raised £22 million more. There are lots of rich people in K&C

  40. "Journalist" is Michael Volpe, doing some special pleading for his project.

    Nice try Mike, but this blog is a little more sophisticated than that.

  41. Kensington Resident27 March 2012 at 14:16

    Mr Volpe, you are an employee of the Council (an Officer) with inflation proofed pension and terms and conditions that are at least 20% more favourable than would be available to you in the Private Sector of the Arts World.

    By instruction of the Leader, Cllr Cockell, Derek Myers has been instructed to inform all Officers that they are not allowed to blog on the Hornet.

    You are living dangerously. Althpough I have observed that artistic types have an independent streak.

    Also, a small matter of personal grooming. Your No 1 going out shoes (black) have holes in the soles and need to be repaired

  42. Oh dear, Kensington Resident 14.16, Volpe/Journalist won't like your perspective one little bit.

    He likes to sell himself as a 'man of the people, look I have tattoos blud, Opera is for the ordinary man - I mean bredren - like me, I'm an estate boy' blablabla. Most unconvincing.

    He sounds more and more like the dreadful snobs he mixes with (on the Council I mean). Sell-out.

  43. All of this is very interesting and thought provoking

  44. More Council filth:


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