Theatres face up to final curtain threat

Developer pressure and unsympathetic planning policies leave theatres an endangered species, reports Susanna Gillman.

It may come as no surprise that pub chain JD Wetherspoons owns more theatres than impresarios Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh put together.

Around 85 per cent of the theatres that were operating at the beginning of the First World War have been demolished, leaving just seven per cent in use. The emergence of cinema in the 1920s and television in the 1960s prompted a decline in live entertainment. Many theatre buildings became more valued for the land on which they stood.

Nowhere was this phenomenon more clearly illustrated than in the massive redevelopment of London's Covent Garden proposed by the Greater London Council (GLC) in 1972, threatening 16 theatres in one fell swoop. Since then, the creation of the Save London's Theatres Campaign and the Theatres Trust has helped to stem the losses, even bringing some theatres back into use.

The Theatres Trust has a role as a statutory consultee in scrutinising planning applications that relate to theatre buildings and flagging up concerns. Thirty years after the Covent Garden debacle, many sites are still at risk as developers eye them up for more profitable uses such as pubs, hotels, offices or luxury flats.

The degree of protection offered by key planning documents such as PPS12 on local development frameworks and the emerging PPS6 on town centres remains patchy. Theatres Trust director Peter Longman explains: "We have been a statutory consultee since the beginning. But the wording of government policy doesn't necessarily make it clear that we should be consulted. We frequently have to remind people of this."

When the trust is neglected in statutory consultation, it often follows that it is left out of the loop by local authorities. "It slips off the radar screen quite a lot," says Pat Thomas, planning partner at SJ Berwin and deputy chair of the trust. "It is a great shame because theatres are very much an opportunity to engage with the community. But that doesn't seem to be recognised in government policy."

Fighting for better protection is no easy task when planning policy makes little mention of culture, let alone theatres. Longman sees little evidence of the problem being discussed between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the ODPM, despite their aspirations for joined-up government.

Local authorities that have a number of theatres in their area, most notably Westminster City Council, are better tuned in. "But others don't know where to put culture in their planning documents," Longman claims.

"We have sent an advice note to all local authorities outlining how we can help as a statutory consultee, but we cannot say that it follows on from planning policy because there isn't any. We need some pegs on which to hang things."

Change of use is as much of a problem as outright demolition. Theatres are classified as sui generis, but if they fall out of use for more than ten years it opens the way for applications for alternative functions.

"Once a theatre use on a site has been lost, you cannot get it back," says Longman. "For example, if it is converted to class A3 food and drink, the value of the site goes sky high. You cannot reverse the land value back down to theatre use. So it is the use that we are protecting."

Seeking to preserve theatres from redevelopment by getting them listed can be a double-edged sword, Longman admits. "It can help save theatres but it also makes it harder to upgrade them," he points out. The restoration of the Prince of Wales Theatre in London last year required the architects to create space for extra seating while preserving its grade II listed features.

John Levitt, chairman of the Save London's Theatres Campaign, believes that listing is effective but can be a disadvantage if a theatre needs to be adapted. "I am not against changes to the interiors and how they are used, but listing is a good way to protect the structure," he says. "Theatres are cultural assets that require protection from the property market."

Last year, plans for a major leisure and shopping scheme on the site of the Forum Theatre in Billingham, Teesside, were ditched after local campaigners managed to get its interior listed (Planning, 12 November 2004, p5). Policy can also be used to maintain a presence by specifying that any theatre that is knocked down must be replaced.

Some unitary development plans include this type of clause, although it often requires a more generic community facility. "We would like it to be made clearer that if a theatre is to be demolished, it needs to be replaced with a theatre space close to the original capacity, although it can be a different design," says Levitt.

Arguments for retaining theatres extend to their role in urban regeneration as well as their heritage. Some enthusiasts are concerned that planning policy is more or less silent on this. "Policy for town centres ignores the role of uses such as theatres in civilising them. Town centres are not just about superpubs after the shops are shut," Thomas complains.

The Theatres Trust duly submitted its response to the draft PPS6 last year. "We need to see more guidance on this issue," maintains Thomas.

"I'm looking out for the final version of PPS6 but I am not confident that it will include much detail on culture. For an overworked planning officer there is nothing to tell me to tick that box unless there is someone jumping up and down about it."

Longman is disappointed by the planning reforms so far. "It was a marvellous opportunity to create proper planning policies for theatres but we have been badly let down," he says. RTPI planning policy manager David Barraclough admits that culture is a "pretty peripheral issue" in planning policy, but argues: "Where these issues are important locally they will be taken on board. If there is the local need and enthusiasm, then stick it in the plan."

Civic Trust special projects manager Hannah Mummery observes that the problem with championing theatres for regeneration is that they need more financial support than other uses. "Things like casinos, retail outlets, bars and clubs make the private sector willing to invest because they will get their money back. With theatres it would be a long time before investors see a return."

Funding is a problem for groups trying to promote cultural venues, despite their potential for drawing customers to commercial areas. "There needs to be a realisation from the private sector that theatres and culture are worth sponsoring," says Mummery, suggesting that bars and pubs could rent space for local theatre groups to bring the community together.

"The biggest threat to theatres is that there is not enough money. The Heritage Lottery Fund is giving more money to theatres than the Arts Council at the moment," Longman points out. He sees scope to use section 106 receipts to help fund refurbishments. Yet the provision of arts and cultural facilities is not a statutory responsibility. "It is an incredibly uneven playing field," he contends.

Longman also notes that using theatres for other events can make them more viable. "It can be difficult to enforce but it is good to have more daytime use of theatres, such as conference venues," he argues. One example of this is the Peacock Theatre in London, which is used by the London School of Economics for lectures and as a theatre in the evening.

Taking theatres into public ownership and leasing them to the commercial sector also helps to preserve them, says Levitt. Longman agrees: "I think it is better for theatres to be owned by local authorities, which would create the responsibility to look after them at local level." But he is hesitant to take on more when the government grant is frozen at £55,000 a year. "Transferring a freehold with no reserves or resources is not an answer," he insists.

Levitt argues that disused theatres should be retained as they will eventually come back into use. "Authorities should recognise this and the government must provide the funding to maintain them." The trust itself owns the Garrick, Lyceum and Lyric Theatres in London, having inherited them from the GLC to provide an independent source of income.

While the future of theatres hinges on what financial resources can be harnessed for their upkeep, planning policy has a part to play in sustaining sites and taking account of the role of culture. The forthcoming PPS6 may provide some guidance on this. Until then the Theatres Trust and other campaigners will continue to bridge the gap between property and the arts.


The battle to save the Mermaid Theatre at Puddle Dock, near London's Blackfriars station, has been under way for more than ten years. The campaign has not been helped by the fact that the building has not been used for regular theatrical performance for much of that time.

Founded by actor Bernard Miles in 1959, the Mermaid was the first to be built in London for 30 years. But after Miles died and the original company moved out, its use could not be sustained. It has since been acquired by property company Blackfriars Investments and has been used to host conferences and events such as BBC Concert Orchestra performances.

In recent years the owners have been pursuing plans to demolish the 600-seat venue. They secured consent in 2003 subject to an agreement to pay out £6 million in compensation for investment in other local theatres, but this has not been implemented.

Now Blackfriars has lodged two fresh applications for Mermaid House, which straddles the theatre. One would create a hotel space above the theatre, while the second features a theatre, conference centre and offices.

The applications are likely to be considered in April or May. The Save London's Theatre's Campaign welcomes the fact that the owners no longer wish to demolish the theatre but remain wary that the latest proposals will mean a loss of dressing rooms and workshop space.

Theatres Trust director Peter Longman contends that theatre companies will be hard pressed to compete with the rents charged for conferences and that conference bookings will make it hard to fit in a decent theatre run.


1972: Greater London Council proposes massive redevelopment of Covent Garden covering 16 theatres. Save London's Theatres Campaign set up as a voluntary body to campaign against theatre demolitions.

1973: Shaftesbury Theatre supporters mount four-day picket to prevent conversion to offices.

1976: Theatres Trust established to provide improved protection.

1979: Battle to save the London Pavilion as a theatre is lost.

1986: Government agrees to keep theatres as a separate category under the reformed Use Classes Order.

1989: Dominion Theatre saved from redevelopment.

1991: Sheffield Lyceum reopens following a £12 million revamp, having endured spells as a bingo hall and rock venue since closure in 1968.

1996: London's Lyceum Theatre reopens after restoration programme.

2003: Scarborough's Royal Opera House, which dated from 1877, demolished following major fire and maintenance problems.

2004: Hackney Empire reopens after massive restoration campaign spearheaded by Griff Rhys-Jones. Outer shell of the Rose Theatre in Kingston-upon-Thames completed as part of planning gain package from Charter Quays mixed-use scheme.

2005: Warehouse Theatre faces demolition under East Croydon Gateway regeneration plans. Developer Arrowcroft indicates that it is happy to accommodate theatre if council wishes to retain it on site.

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