The catastrophic collapse of Preston Guild Hall’s operator should give many UK local authorities pause for thought. It has become increasingly common for councils to outsource the operation of their entertainment venues to external, specialist operators, which often run them commercially. It’s a trend that is likely to continue as local authority budgets are squeezed and the amount they receive from central government dwindles.
The idea is attractive to cash-strapped councils, which often regard theatres as desirable but, in the current funding climate, an unacceptable drain on resources. An external operator that can continue to run the venue but at a reduced cost seems like a win-win.
It often is. Numerous operators such as Ambassador Theatre Group and HQ Theatres have come in and improved the offering at a local theatre while saving the council money. Both have a similar commercial model, but there are other options: Croydon Council has engaged the social enterprise BH Live to operate the soon-to-reopen Fairfield Halls and many local authorities have also made the decision to hand over operation of their theatres to independent trusts. This has worked well at, for example, Newcastle Theatre Royal.
But the problem is that if the council chooses the wrong operator – or the wrong model – it can end up costing more in the long term and putting a local community resource at risk. This appears to have happened in Preston. The staggering level of debt owed coupled with the chorus of complaints against Simon Rigby from experienced theatre producers seems to indicate that Preston City Council made a bad choice when it handed over the keys of the Guild Hall for the princely sum of £1. Usually, decisions such as these are taken by councils through a full public tender process, but that doesn’t appear to have been the case here. Questions should now be asked why.
In 2014, former council leader Peter Rankin explained the decision: “We received a handful of proposals, most of which wanted some sort of annual subsidy from the council to keep the Guild Hall running as well as leaving us with the continued upkeep of a tired building that needed considerable investment. The proposal from Simon Rigby was different.”
Other councils in a similar position would do well to remember that the cheapest option is not always the right one: some theatres cannot be run without ongoing financial support from the local authority, no matter what an inexperienced and overly optimistic bidder might say.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith