Chronic underinvestment in historic West End theatres should be investigated by the government as a “matter of urgency”, according to a report looking into the problems affecting the entertainment district.
The independent inquiry, led by West End representatives including theatre leaders such as Society of London Theatre chief executive Julian Bird and performing arts promoter Harvey Goldsmith, has found that the lack of financial support for national assets is putting the area’s “pre-eminent” cultural heritage “under threat”.
The West End Commission states in its report that, in particular, grade I-listed buildings occupied by theatres and other arts organisations – which include the Royal Opera House, Theatre Royal Haymarket and Theatre Royal Drury Lane – should be helped to secure more long-term funding.
The panel recommends that a specific and joint strategy be agreed between local authorities, national agencies such as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and English Heritage, and Lottery distributors.
This funding strategy should be led by a new West End partnership, which is part of the panel’s wider aims for tackling the area’s transport, business, economic and environmental problems.
Mhora Samuel, director of national advisory body the Theatres Trust, said it supported the recommendations to redress the lack of investment by the government in national assets.
She said: “Our Act Now! Modernising London’s West End Theatres report published in 2003 identified that £250 million was required to maintain and protect these theatres. Over a decade later, Act Now’s recommendations still stand and we’re pleased that the West End Commission’s report supports this. Although Theatreland generates over £88 million receipts from VAT for the Treasury, and represents some of the UK’s most prized buildings, West End theatres still need investment.”
Samuel added: “Of the 40 theatres in the West End, 36 are noted for their architectural and historical significance, nearly all are statutory designated. The trust is also very aware that many of London’s West End listed theatres are under-graded. We think at least six more theatres should be grade I – Wyndhams Theatre, the Palace Theatre, Her Majesty’s Theatre, the Lyceum Theatre, the Apollo Victoria Theatre and London Palladium – and five more upgraded to grade II*.”
Elsewhere in the report, the group calls for the new West End partnership to establish a dedicated strand focused on marketing the area to visitors and investors. It says the West End needs to “strengthen its brand” and better promote its characteristics, which allow visitors to go to heritage buildings, take part in evening entertainment and shop in a small geographic area.
Transport issues also need to be addressed, according to the commission. It recommends expanding weekend traffic-free days and looking into the possibility of all-night buses and trains. Later running services on the underground, Crossrail and Thameslink should be “progressed as a priority”, the report states.
Howard Bernstein, chief executive of Manchester City Council and chair of the West End Commission, said: “The analysis presented in this report seeks to provide a platform for a radical reform programme which is focused upon the West End as a place. It also recognises that the need to secure a new leadership and governance model, which the commission believes is required, extends beyond the West End.
“The broader picture is about winning the argument for greater devolution for London as a whole, and developing the case for agreements between the Mayor [of London] and boroughs on investment, devolution, public service reform and flexibilities around regulatory and planning functions.”