Published: 21:04, 26 January 2021
| Updated: 16:55, 27 January 2021
It's back to square one for Maidstone council and the Hazlitt Theatre.
Members of the council's economic regeneration and leisure committee tonight accepted a report from its officers that the council should continue with its contract with Parkwood Leisure, the company that manages the Hazlitt Arts Centre on the council's behalf.
The decision is a reversal of that taken at a meeting in November, when the committee decided to end the contract with Parkwood Leisure and bring the theatre back under direct council control.
It was feared at the time that the move was the first step towards closing the theatre for good, and prompted an enormous public outcry.
At that time, council leader Cllr Martin Cox (Lib Dem) said: “We want to bring the building back under council control so we can better manage the finances around it during this period of uncertainty and review the re-opening of the theatre, under a new arrangement at a time when it is viable and sustainable."
The review of the Hazlitt has been prompted by the fact that the theatre has been closed since March 2020 because of Covid.
The council has been continuing to pay Parkwood's fees of around £245,000 a year, although no shows have been put on.
The council owns the freehold of the Hazlitt Arts Centre, which includes the Exchange Studio, the Fourth Wall and the Graham Clarke Exhibition Gallery, but sold a long lease on the buildings to a third-party property company which has, in turn, sub-leased the Hazlitt Arts Centre back to the council on a 125-year lease, expiring in 2116, while separately leasing the ground floor units to retail and restaurant tenants.
The council’s lease covenants state that the council will “not use the premises or any part or parts there of for any purpose other than as a theatre and as a venue for other forms of public entertainment meetings and private functions and purposes ancillary thereto.”
When the council ran the theatre itself previously it was costing the borough around £600,000 a year. Parkwood's contract began in 2013. The company keeps the profit from any shows.
With the council facing a shortfall in its own budget for next year of more than £2m thanks to the pandemic, which has now fallen to £1.6m, the committee previously wondered why it was paying Parkwood £244k a year to keep the theatre dark.
But committee chairman Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) said the difference today was the approval of the Covid vaccines and their fast roll-out which had offered hope for the theatre's commercial re-opening earlier than had been anticipated in November.
In his report, the council's leisure manager Mike Evans said the vaccination programme had made "a significant change to the bleak and uncertain future faced last November."
His officers had also formally consulted user groups at the Hazlitt who had stressed how important the venue was to them, which he acknowledged "was never really in doubt."
Cllr Denise Joy (Lib Dem) reassured the pubic that she had "never heard any councillor say they wanted to even think about closing the theatre."
Cllr John Perry (Con) said: "The County Town of Kent should always have a theatre and I want to see a commitment to ensure the re-opening of the Hazlitt as soon as the situation permits."
Cllr Bob Hinder (Con) explained the reversal of the decision. He said: "Back in November none of us thought we would be in the situation we are in today with 6m people already vaccinated."
Since November, Parkwood Leisure had also submitted a new business plan and shown the council its 2020 company accounts which had convinced officers that the company was "proving resilient" despite the Covid-19 pandemic.
However the plan predicted the theatre would make losses even after performance was resumed because social distancing would restrict limit audience sizes.
Acknowledging that relations between the council and Parkwood had been strained since the November decision, Cllr Paul Harper (Lab) said: "It's been a difficult few months."
But he said it was "time to reboot the relationship with Parkwood, uplift the discussions and get back to talking about performance and the arts and not the finances."
The council voted unanimously to continue the existing arrangement with Parkwood Leisure.
The decision will be reviewed in April, however Cllr Harper, speaking afterwards said: "It's got to be a significant thing with the Covid situation to change what everybody wants, which is to work in partnership with Parkwood."
Giving examples, he said: "If say, in April Covid has exploded again, we are facing the prospect of lockdowns on and off for the foreseeable future."
Speaking after the meeting, Cllr Harper said the theatre could once again hold live performances in late spring or early summer, if the vaccine programme continued its trajectory. He added that even if performances couldn't be held in the theatre itself, Parkwood could arrange shows outside.
In November, Cllr Martin Cox, leader of the council, said that for the next three years the council will be looking for savings.
Despite the budget gap in the council's finances for next year being reduced from more than £2m to 1.6m, Cllr Harper admitted more savings would be made "going forward".
He said: "I think in terms of the overall budget conditions for the council are still looking relatively bleak."
He pointed out that funding had already been cut by at Maidstone Museum by 25%.
Maidstone and the Weald MP Helen Grant welcomed the news.
She said: "‘I am so pleased that the doors of the Hazlitt Theatre will once again be open for performances and community groups as soon as Covid restrictions allow.
"The Hazlitt is at the beating cultural heart of our County Town and its continued presence will perhaps be more important than ever as we rebuild our local economy and community from the Coronavirus crisis in the months ahead.
"I would like to thank MBC, Parkwood Leisure and Councillors on the ERL Committee, especially Jonathan Purle who has been an extremely determined and effective campaigner on this issue, for their diligence and hard work in coming to this very welcome conclusion.
"I also want to pay tribute to the thousands of people from across our community who joined with me to oppose the theatre’s closure. You have proven what is possible when people come together and campaign for a common cause."
Cllr Jonathan Purle was one of the figures leading the charge in calling for reversal of the decision made by the economic, regeneration and leisure committee in November.