Thame September Fair – Briefing Paper
This document should be read in conjunction with the Town Council’s two prior press releases:
08/09/17 – Thame Fair Cancelled
12/09/17 – Thame September Fair (an update)
By refusing to sign a reasonable one year agreement, the Showmen’s Guild has caused the cancellation of the Thame Fair in September. Two press releases were issued by Thame Town Council to explain the situation. There has been continued interest in further background information, and this briefing paper has been prepared to answer the questions raised.
Thame Town Council is responsible for the running of the fair and enters into an agreement with the Showmen’s Guild who provide the fair, so that responsibilities of the two organisations are clear. The existing three year agreement expired in October 2016 and it was agreed in a first formal meeting (following e-mails earlier in the year) with the Guild on 5 July 2017 to progress a new 4 year agreement. Without agreement, the fair cannot go ahead. There have been claims on social media that the Guild was not involved until late August which are incorrect.
The expectation was that any negotiations would be straight forward, as there were expected to be no significant changes from the existing agreement, as signed by both parties in 2014 and updated to exclude goldfish, and again signed by both parties, in 2016.
Following on from the July meeting, an initial draft four year agreement was sent to the Guild on 21 July 2017 seeking their views on any further changes required. Apart from date changes, the only change made from the prior signed agreement by the Town Council was to switch the price increase calculation from precept based to CPI (Consumer Price Index) based, which was more favourable to the Guild. No other new clauses were inserted by the Town Council. This was supported by the now famous spreadsheet which outlined costs to Thame Town Council, but more importantly, the fact that under the existing agreement Thame Town Council could have increased the charge to £28,190 and then £31,387. That was clearly unsustainable to the Guild and in fact the charges stayed at £27,319 / £27,521 / £27,521 for the three years, a saving to the guild of around £4,500. Applying the same terms again, would have meant a new charge of £33,930, also clearly unsustainable. An initial charge of £31,387 was therefore proposed (a level set the same as the theoretical end of the previous agreement) and taken by the Guild as the Town Council’s initial negotiating position.
There has been much discussion about the cost breakdown, and in particular the overhead charges. As a service provider, Thame Town Council has to account for all its costs of each service it provides, both direct costs and indirect costs. The indirect costs are staff costs and overhead recharges. Overheads are all the costs incurred by the Town Council that cannot be allocated directly to a particular service e.g. insurance, training, computer provision, office space, professional fees (auditors / accountants), utility supplies / rates, security, waste management etc. In the case of the fair it also includes a reflection of the specific responsibilities that the Town Council takes on (security / cleaning / parking etc). It is never an exact science, but the method as used by Thame Town Council to apportion those costs (at both budgeting and actual cost recording stage) to each of those services has been assessed through thorough audit processes over many years, without fault. Staff costs can be allocated after the event via timesheet details, and the reallocation of overhead costs across all services follows a similar pattern. When actual figures are applied, some services may generate a loss and others a surplus. In the case of Thame Town Council working with commercial operators, the aim must always be to make a small surplus, to ensure that the taxpayer is not subsidising a commercial operation. That budgeted surplus on the initial negotiating position was defined as “Community Projects” and was noted as an arbitrary £2,150 at that stage. The staff costs were slightly more accurately established based on best guesses of time and effort by different officers on the numerous tasks required to run a successful fair and noted as £6,985. A separate list of the many of the tasks can be supplied and includes for example: management of road closure (including signage provision which in itself saves £3000), risk management, emergency planning, parking permits, information to residents, security (including agreements with emergency services), checking full paperwork of each stallholder, responding to queries, sound surveys, patrolling of the event, bus service planning, taxi service planning, reporting to council, removal (and reinstatement) of street furniture, clearance of bins into skips, skip management, contractor management, problem solving, standpipe provision, clearing car parks, temporary parking provision, Guild liaison etc. That left an arbitrary £6,000 for “Overhead Recharges” as part of the £33,930 total.
Second Formal Meeting
A second formal meeting took place on 3 August 2017, where the Guild stated some minor changes required to the agreement (which were all accepted), and concern at the proposed costs. The Town Council reduced the price to £28,500 in that meeting, in effect removing £5,430 of the £6,000 Overhead recharge. The Guild also requested a review of the goldfish clause, but no other concerns on any clauses were raised. The Guild’s initial negotiating position – to only pay the same as the last 2 years, i.e. £27,521 did not change.
Separate formal meetings – Guild / Council
On 15 August 2017 the Guild had a Committee meeting and the outcome of that was sent in an e-mail that day: “The London Home Counties Section Committee cannot enter into an agreement with Thame Council if there is an increase on the rent from 2016, as we would have to pass this onto our tenants”. There was no mention of any problem with any other clauses in the agreement.
On 15 August 2017 the Town Council had a meeting and formally agreed with all the requested changes to the agreement by the Guild, but agreed to stick to a price of £28,500 as that was just a £979 increase, the first in three years, and given the 81 pitches and 3 days of operation equates to an average increase of £4 per stall holder per day.
The Town Council’s view was that the Guild were playing brinksmanship. The one outstanding issue was £979. The outcome of the Council meeting was reported to the Guild on 16 August 2017: “Following discussions at the Full Council meeting last night regarding the Fair Agreement with The Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain, London & Home Counties Section, the Council resolved that the Agreement attached be approved with no changes. The Town Council has always had a good working relationship with the Showmen’s Guild. It invites them to the town and it is hoped that this continues. As with all events the Council has to cover the costs for implementing the required licences and operational necessities to assist in making the Thame fairs efficient, safe, and a secure event for the residents, businesses and showmen alike. As stated below the fees have remained the same for two years at £27,521 and now rising to £28,500 an increase of £979; the first for three years. Neither the Town Council nor the residents of Thame should subsidise the fair. What is being charged is a fair and reasonable amount and costs have already been incurred for the fairs this year. The Council require the Agreement to be signed and returned by the Guild by Wednesday 23 August 2017.”
Having received no reply by 22 August 2017, the Guild was chased and they informed the Town Council that they had now called an emergency tenants’ meeting, which could not meet until 8 September 2017. A further extension was granted, but was very close to the final legal date to enforce the road closure.
Emergency Tenants’ Meeting
The tenants met on 8 September 2017. The outcome of the meeting was reported to the Town Council at 12:35 on that day: “Re our meeting today, after lengthy discussion with all The Tenants of Thame Fair they have decided on the following propositions:
Proposition (1): The tenantsof Thame Show and Thame Fair have unamiously voted to instruct The london Section not to sign the new Thame Agreement in its current format. The rent will be to dear, plus there are various other clauses they cannot agree to as well.
Proposition (2): The tenants also voted unamiously to allow the London Section to sign a new agreement only if it’s the same as last year (2016).”
This was the first that the Town Council had heard any issue with the existing clauses. We still have no formal knowledge of the clauses concerned, but from social media, understand that all the clauses in question have existed in the existing signed agreements for many years. There was still no movement from the Guild’s initial offer of £27,521. The Council had resolved to only accept £28,500 so there was no option but to cancel the September Fair.
Last ditch compromise
On Monday 11 September 2017, the Town Council offered a last ditch compromise for the Guild to sign a one year agreement only, allowing this year’s fair to go ahead, and giving time to renegotiate for future years, including consideration of the “various other clauses” (not known). Again, nothing was heard as the latest revised deadline approached and a final telephone call to the Guild confirmed they were not prepared to sign a one year agreement. A full press release as referred to above was released the following day.
The Guild repeated its offer of £27,521 for the 2016 agreement on Wednesday 13 September 2017. But even if they had offered £28,500 at that point, it would have been too late to enforce the road closures required.
Other points raised on Social Media
The Guild has claimed on social media that an increase in street furniture has hampered their operations. It is agreed that the Millennium Planter has taken some space, and discussions with the Guild were offered, but not taken up. The Town Council’s understanding was that the new Broadband box outside the Co-Op was to be placed in the adjacent alley, and made strenuous efforts to get it moved when it was placed on the footway (including facilitating discussions between the Guild and the Service Provider), but all to no avail for something completely outside the Town Council’s responsibility. The fire service accommodated the resulting impact. In all other cases street furniture is removed (part of the staff costs). There was a claim that the Town Council refused to remove the flag pole – though that was an instruction from the Guild not to remove it, to assist with resolving their own internal dispute with an operator who they did not want to attend.
The Guild has also claimed that the charge has increased by more than 25% in the last 5 years. This is not the case. Charges paid by the Guild since 2011 are £24,000, £24,963, £26,668, £27,319, £27,521, £27,521, £28,500 (proposed).
It remains fundamental that tax payers’ money cannot be used to subsidise a commercial operation, and the Town Council must budget to ensure that is not the case. The expected brinksmanship on behalf of the Guild did not materialise and the other concerns about clauses in the agreement were not reported to the Town Council until 8 September 2017. The Town Council remains disappointed that the fair will not happen next week in line with past tradition, but is looking forward to working with the Guild to ensure effective operation of the Charter Fair in October.
Date: Friday 15 September 2017