COMMUNITY groups are being let down by the attitude and behaviour of Surrey County Council, says Elaine McGinty, chairman of the Phoenix Cultural Centre in Woking.

Elaine was speaking to the News & Mail after the council cabinet refused funding for a new Fiery Bird live music venue and community centre in the former Bed Bar near the railway station.

Phoenix had applied for £1.5 million from Your Fund Surrey (YFS), which had recommended approval, as did council officers.

The bid, to turn the shell of a building which has been empty for five years, into a fully accessible community hub, had widespread support, including from the borough council that owns it.

“It’s just inexplicable,” Elaine said.

“They have totally ignored all the expertise we brought, like the Music Venues Trust who reviewed our finances and know the sector inside out and all the charities that said they want to partner with us.

“Bearing in mind that the officers recommended approval, members of the cabinet who don’t have any expertise in this field seem to have decided they know better than everybody else.”

Elaine said the new Fiery Bird would have allowed Phoenix to build on the work at its two previous venues over the past 11 years to offer employment and training opportunities, partner with colleges, schools and charities and be accessible to all.“It’s very disempowering for communities,” she said.

“All through this process that’s taken them two years, we constantly got lectures about it being public or taxpayers’ money but we’re fully aware of that because we are the public and we are the taxpayers.

“They have no compunction about taking two years spending taxpayers’ money to reject bids and there’s no accountability for it because it wasn’t done in public.”

She said that smaller community groups were being put off applying for YFS funding because of the Phoenix experience.

“By calling it a community fund and then treating the community applying for it in the way they have, they’ve done more damage than had we not heard of this in the first place.”

The county council have disputed that the application took two years to process and have said that, according to the YFS team, Phoenix submitted their full application only in July 2021.

Three months ago, members of the YFS panel came to see the site and discuss the plans with Phoenix and indicated that they would recommend to the cabinet that it approve the funding.

But Elaine was recently called to a meeting and told the funding had been refused because of the cost of living and energy crisis.

The council said in a statement that the application was not financially robust, and the project was too ambitious and difficult to achieve in the current economic environment.

“The current high cost of living and energy crisis would impact the running costs of the operation and potentially the ability of residents to afford the social activities the organisation was offering.

"It was felt the risk of the project succeeding was too high given the considerable investment being requested,” a spokesman said.

Elaine said she disputed the reasons given.

“We could get lower cost energy through the Crown Commercial Service because it’s a council-owned building and it’s needed more now because we were set up to give people support who are struggling financially,” she said.

“Because of the cost of living crisis, more people will stay in town than go to London and would have had something here for them.”

Elaine pointed out that the YFS page on the county council website has the words “think big” in large capital letters.

She said Phoenix showed in its application that it would have a big positive impact across the whole of Surrey.

“Woking’s got the highest ethnicity and diversity in Surrey and yet we’ve got no cultural centre. They haven’t recognised that nor the representations from the Surrey Minority Ethnic Forum who said this venue would be important for their work.”

Elaine said there appeared to be no appeal process, but she had been referred to the council’s customer services department to make a complaint.

She said that either Phoenix will have to close or try to set up a Fiery Bird outside Surrey.

“We don’t want to do that, but the whole project has been undermined and there’s nothing else we can do if they don’t want it here and are not going to help us.

“We set it up specifically for the needs we saw in Woking.

“We’re Woking residents and we were trying to serve our community,” Elaine said.

Timeline of events:

* Phoenix started the application in 2020 for the funds to put in power and water and disabled access to the former Bed Bar after the Fiery Bird next to the HG Wells Centre had to close to make way for part of the town centre redevelopment.

* The borough council offered the former nightclub in Church Path in 2019 and supported the application for funds to turn it into a multi-use venue with a 300-capacity area for local and visiting performers with another space for up to 120 people offering a range of activities and events.

* The YFS application process was advertised at taking three to six months and the delay forced the cancellation of several gigs, which had previously been postponed twice, and an indefinite hold on opening the new venue.

* In November last year, Phoenix was given a grant of more than £72,000 by Arts Council England to keep the organisation going while it waited for a decision from the county council.

* It also gave £200,000 in three grants that Elaine hoped would show that the project had already been assessed as worth supporting.