Most of the commercial West End is located in the borough of Westminster (a few theatres are in Camden). It is a major driver of tourism to this part of the capital: theatres generate business in restaurants, bars and shops, they drive demand for parking spaces and they make people want to live in London.
As commercial entities, West End theatres pay business rates – significantly higher since 2017 – from which the local authority benefits. This does not take into account the nearly £118 million that London venues generate in VAT annually for the Treasury.
Despite probably being the local authority in the whole of the UK that benefits most – both directly and indirectly – from theatre, Westminster has the lowest regular funding level for theatre and the arts in the entire country: zero, since it cut all arts funding in 2014/15. Nada, zilch, not a sausage.
You might have thought that, in that context, the least it could do was to be supportive of a West End theatre owner planning to invest £45 million of his own money into one of the borough’s historic landmarks.
Like Cameron Mackintosh’s revamp of the Victoria Palace, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s refurbishment of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane will not be earned back in his lifetime: this is a heritage project undertaken by a theatre operator who is prepared to reinvest some of his own private wealth back into the industry (and city) that has helped him make his fortune.
It should be encouraged. Westminster should be bending over backwards to encourage Lloyd Webber to do this: it is in its long-term interest that Drury Lane is preserved, as a historic monument, a place of entertainment and a business.
It is perfectly reasonable that the council should seek compensation for the suspension of the parking bays, but it should not be profiteering from the renovation. The fact that Westminster is charging nearly £140,000 for the suspension of a coach bay from which it receives no revenue and that principally serves the very theatre closed for these works underlines just how misguided the council is in its thinking.
And perhaps it also serves to underline that Theatreland is in need of new advocates within Westminster following the departure of former deputy leader Robert Davis. He was an avid theatregoer but resigned in October after he was found to have breached the councillors’ code of conduct after receiving hospitality from property developers.