Published: 11:05, 25 November 2020
| Updated: 11:38, 25 November 2020
MP Helen Grant has urged Maidstone Council not to take "rushed decisions that pose an existential threat" to the Hazlitt Theatre, ahead of a crunch meeting this evening to decide the venue's future.
Earlier this month, Maidstone Borough Council (MBC) announced plans to terminate its contract with Parkwood Theatres, which manages the day-to-day running of the venue, and take control of the theatre in an effort to save money.
The decision was made in a private session, meaning it was not open to the public, and prompted a furious public backlash and fears that the theatre could close for good.
MBC has since clarified that it will reopen the theatre when viable to do so, but a petition calling for the authority to take the funding withdrawal off the table continues to climb in numbers, and is now at 7,300.
Councillors and Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant have questioned how MBC's plan to the run the theatre when it reopens and the fate of community groups while it is mothballed.
Ahead of an MBC committee meeting, due to review the decision tonight, Mrs Grant said she backed calls for the decision to be reversed and the issue put on ice until January, in a letter to Martin Cox, leader of MBC.
She said: "It will allow time to explore the options and take action as needed."
When the second lockdown ends next week, theatres in areas under tier one and two can reopen but with reduced capacity.
But Cllr Paul Harper, chairman of the economic regeneration and leisure committee which made the decision to terminate the contract, said that it still wouldn't be financially viable to run the theatre with social distancing in place and the structure of the building would make restrictions hard to follow.
Mrs Grant said she was not against the theatre being managed 'in-house' by MBC in principle, but said there were fears this could lead to mothballing the theatre, "pending revived finances".
"My constituents simply want a successful local threatre which ensures the arts are accessible to our community.
"We know from countless examples up and down the UK that, all too often, once theatres close, they never reopen. This must never be the fate of The Hazlitt," she said.
She asked Cllr Cox for urgent written responses to her list of questions, which would provide assurance and answer many queries hanging over the Hazlitt's future.
She asked when the council's budget and business plan for the Hazlitt will be publicly available and who is in charge of its preparation, as well as what expertise the authority has to operate the theatre and who will be responsible for the day-to-day running.
She also asked if MBC will be working with any partners in operating the theatre, such as a private enterprise or the county council.
Turning to the timeline, she about milestones under plans for resumption of performances and whether there are any target dates.
The theatre has been closed for performances since March but the Hazlitt Youth Theatre resumed dance classes at the venue before the second lockdown.
It is not known whether youth groups will be able to return if MBC takes control and mothballs the venue but it has been suggested they may have to find other venues, assisted by the council.
Mrs Grant sought clarity over this, asking if the venue will again be accessible to youth and dance groups, immediately after MBC takes over and for a firm assurance the groups would not have to find a different venue.
She finished: "With successful vaccines now becoming an imminent prospect, such hope on the horizon surely suggests that now is not a time to take rushed decisions that pose an existential threat to the cultural heard of the County Town of Kent."
The council say the decision to terminate the contract has been made to protect the taxpayer and the Hazlitt.
Because of the extra pressures created by the pandemic, it faces an overspend for the current financial year, so cannot afford to continue paying for a closed theatre, it says.
MBC faces a budget gap of more than £2 million for next year and will be looking at where it can save money.
The decision made to cut the contract will be reviewed by the policy and resources committee this evening, after a group of councillors called it in.
Cllr Jonathan Purle, who drafted the challenge, warned beloved theatre may be left with "no panto, no magic and no wonder" if the council takes over.