£500,000 council bailout for Filton aero museum

Aerospace Bristol

The home of the last Concorde to grace the skies is set to receive a £470,000 council bailout after a report revealed the Filton Airfield museum is struggling to make money.

The impact of the pandemic followed by the cost-of-living crisis and spiralling inflation has meant less income, rising bills and fewer school visits to Aerospace Bristol.

South Gloucestershire Council cabinet has now agreed to use up to £316,000 of new government cash to write off part of the interest and capital repayments of a 10-year loan it has with Bristol Aerospace Collection Trust (BACT), the charity that runs the attraction in Patchway, to “avoid the risk of insolvency”.

The authority is also giving it £61,000 in 2023/24 and £31,000 for the next three years from a second pot of money from Whitehall announced last week, to help increase school trips.

The plan was a late additional budget recommendation published on the day of the cabinet meeting on Friday, February 10, and needs approval at full council on Wednesday evening (February 15) as part of the authority’s annual financial plans.

The remaining £30,000 a year from the second extra government grant will be used from 2024/25 to 2026/27 to reverse proposed cuts to the Chipping Sodbury taxi marshals.

Meanwhile, the council issued a statement after the BACT loan write-off was presented by the authority’s chief financial officer Nina Philippidis, who is also a trustee of the charity – a link not mentioned at the meeting.

The council said it “strives to ensure that it always operates at the highest levels of transparency and openness” and that the officer was not the decision maker.

Ms Philippidis told cabinet that £950,000 was outstanding on BACT’s loan from the local authority at four per cent interest above the base rate.

She said: “The loan was rearranged in March 2020 as the pandemic commenced and then subsequently in March 2022 following the impact of the Covid-19 Omicron outbreak in November 2021.

“Since reopening, the museum has been further impacted by the cost-of-living crisis with reducing discretionary income and rising utility and interest costs.

“Over the past few months, the museum has fundamentally reviewed its operating structure to work within a reduced cost envelope whilst looking to improve the offer made to visitors and schools.

“Visitor numbers are comparing well to national benchmarking with growing numbers and a growing community offering.

“The core business is financially viable, however surpluses are likely to be insufficient over the coming years to cover the annual loan repayments and rapidly rising interest charges.

“The museum has also seen a drop in school visits compared to pre-pandemic levels reflecting reduced school budgets and growing costs of travel.

“This trend is not anticipated to reverse in the near time which will see reduced numbers of school children accessing the STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] outreach work of the museum.”

She said it was proposed to use South Gloucestershire’s share of government money to be distributed from business rates – £315,900 for the council – to write off part of BACT’s loan interest and capital repayments “to ensure the ongoing financial sustainability of the museum and avoid any risk of insolvency”.

Ms Philippidis said: “Options for addressing the remaining balance on the loan will be developed by officers working with the museum with updates brought back to cabinet over the coming financial year.”

Aerospace Bristol’s website says she is the chair of the audit committee for the charity’s board of trustees.

It says: “In her most recent role, Nina is the Chief Financial Officer for South Gloucestershire Council.

“SGC has been a firm supporter of BAC Trust and Nina has assisted in securing the Cultural Recovery Fund grant, revised loan arrangements and investment in school visits to the museum.”

Asked to explain her role at both organisations and how this was not a conflict of interests, a South Gloucestershire Council spokesperson said: “It is important to note that the decision maker in relation to the financial support for the BACT was the council’s cabinet.

“An amendment to the original report was requested by cabinet and because of the technical issues faced at the cabinet meeting on Friday, Ms Philippidis presented a verbal update.”

The technical issues included the council chamber’s microphones not working and video cameras failing to record the meeting, which should have been live-streamed.

The spokesperson said: “In the event that there had been any questions raised Ms Philippidis would have made a declaration of interest and asked another finance officer to provide any relevant advice (either at the meeting or as a written follow-up).

“The decision on the BACT loan agreement, support for school visits and the taxi marshal savings proposal will be presented to the budget setting meeting on Wednesday in accordance with the council’s constitution, at which time full council will have the opportunity to scrutinise these decisions with a relevant senior officer being available to answer any questions that arise.

“The council strives to ensure that it always operates at the highest levels of transparency and openness and officers are subject to the council’s code of conduct for employees at all times.

“Where officers are appointed to positions on external bodies appropriate declarations of interest are made and, where necessary, appropriate ethical walls are in place to ensure that there is an appropriate separation of advice and decision making.”