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Disabled access ‘below standard’ in designs for Manchester’s £112m Factory, Theatres Trust warns

Architects' impression of the Factory theatre in Manchester. Photo: OMA Architects' impression of the Factory theatre in Manchester. Photo: OMA
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Concerns have been raised over plans for disabled access within the £112 million Factory arts centre in Manchester, which is seeking planning approval for a second time.

The city’s new flagship cultural venue, backed by £78 million from central government, was granted planning permission in early 2017, shortly before Manchester International Festival was announced as its future operator.

Autumn statement: Extra funds for Manchester’s Factory theatre and Birmingham Dance Hub

Last summer, poor acoustics and other concerns over the original plans by Dutch architecture firm OMA led to Manchester City Council agreeing to increase the budget by £1.65 million to implement changes, which are now being set out in a fresh planning application.

These include reducing the main theatre’s capacity from 1,600 to a maximum of 1,520, resulting in larger foyer areas. The plans also remove the ‘novelty’ glazed and concrete exterior, which it was claimed would negatively impact acoustics, and increase the size of the orchestra pit.

In a letter to the council, the Theatres Trust says the revised designs would provide a better audience/performer relationship, but expresses concern over the standard of wheelchair access.

The Theatres Trust is being consulted in its capacity as the national advisory body for theatres.

“We would expect access provision within a new build theatre of such high profile to reflect current best practice,” the letter says, adding: “We would also expect a new theatre to provide inclusive access for wheelchair users allowing them the same journey from entrance to seat as ambulant members of the audience, but this is not reflected within current plans.”

It also raises concerns over how wheelchair users and people who need assistance would be evacuated in an emergency, and claims that there is only one wheelchair-accessible toilet within the theatre.

“Disabled provision for audience members, staff and performers must at least meet minimum standards, as we have outlined above and is referenced within the design and access statement. We suggest revisions at the earliest opportunity to ensure that these points are addressed.

“We continue to welcome the scheme, but cannot fully support the granting of planning permission… unless access standards and regulations are met,” the trust’s letter says.

Some of the trust’s concerns with the original designs have been addressed in the new plans, it said, such as improvements to get-in arrangements and better toilet locations.

Theatres Trust director Jon Morgan described the theatre as an “ambitious project that is not without its challenges in terms of achieving the vision of a flexible, democratic performance space within a relatively restricted site in the heart of Manchester”.

“We welcome a number of improvements that have been made since we were last consulted, including the overall form of the theatre auditorium and improvements to the get-in and some front of house areas. We would like to see further improvements on some areas, particularly audience flow and disabled access and have commented on these questions in our latest submission to the planning authority.,” he added.

He said the trust wanted to support the Manchester International Festival to get the “best possible venue that will be an exemplar of great theatre design and best practice”.

The Factory is due to open in September 2020, later than originally planned. It was hoped it would open in time for the 2019 Manchester International Festival. However, the timings were pushed back last year.

A spokeswoman for Manchester City Council said: “We’re aware of the concerns and are working on the issues raised.”

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