A FORMER trustee of Salisbury Arts Centre has blasted the council's "highly disrespectful" and "totally unfair" decision to cut the venue's funding with just three weeks notice.

Peter Williams said he was "mad as hell" as he gave an impassioned speech against the Wiltshire Council decision at a meeting of Salisbury Area Board last night, which earned hearty applause.

Scores of people packed a meeting room at the City Hall to hear cabinet member Stuart Wheeler explain the controversial move, in which a reduction of £89,000 to the entire county's arts budget was heaped onto a single venue.

Mr Williams demanded to know:

n how the council ensured clear separation between policy and implementation

n how the people of Salisbury could hold Wiltshire cabinet to account

n when and how the decision was reached

n who was consulted

He said the move discriminated against disadvantaged groups and carried no authority.

Cllr Wheeler defended the "deeply regrettable decision", blaming government funding cuts and rising costs of delivering services.

He said Salisbury got "a very large chunk" of the council's arts funding (£353k of £502k) so should bear the brunt of the cuts.

But he said the Playhouse and International Arts Festival had been spared because they had "national reputations for excellence".

Fears were raised that Arts Council England would now withdraw its funding from the arts centre.

Salisbury resident Josie Smith said she was "heartbroken" by the "scandalous" decision.

"This is not just about arts this is about medicine for people who suffer from depression," she said.

"If this is what happens up and down the country then God help us."

Arts centre director Gemma Okell gave a presentation explaining the venue's wide-ranging outreach work.

Salisbury MP John Glen said he was particularly concerned about hard-to-reach groups having access to the arts.

Area board members gave their views on the decision.

Ricky Rogers said: "Is the arts going to just be for the privileged few?"

"I think that's a tragedy."

Richard Clewer said: "To be blunt I would rather make sure we don't have old people dying at home than support the arts."

Mary Douglas said: "We did not know until we read it in the Journal and that should never be the case."

Bill Moss said Cllr Wheeler was right to put the whole burden the arts centre to avoid destroying several organisations.

John Walsh said he was shocked and ashamed to be part of a council that gave the arts centre such short notice.

And Ian Tomes said he wondered whether the council fully understood how culturally and economically important the arts were to Salisbury.

Chairman Brian Dalton said he would write a strongly worded letter to the cabinet.

"The sense around the room I think is echoed around Salisbury," he said.

"Cut what you will at your peril."

A petition against the cut with more than 1,800 signatures was handed to Cllr Wheeler.

The arts centre announced last month that it would be forced to close on Sundays and sack staff as a result of the cut.