It has been over a year since we put in our application to English Heritage for listing for the Futurist theatre, in order to prevent demolition by the council. Recently people have been making enquiries as to what is happening. With its 90th anniversary on June 27 imminent I feel that it is becoming important that we communicate to everybody what the situation is.
We were originally told we could expect feedback from English Heritage within ‘about’ six months. Therefore we made enquiries in early November, and were told that, due to cutbacks, there were fewer part-time staff to assist in processing applications and there was a backlog. I enquired again in January, and was told by our contact that the case was progressing towards being sent to the Secretary of State at Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCM&S) for ratification of the environment health decision, which policy dictated that they could not disclose to me!
In March I wrote to DCM&S to ask for information. They replied, in April, that they had not received it at all, and that it was still in York! Apparently it is an unusually complex application. What appears to happen is that when a large quantity of listing applications are received, the simple ones get dealt with quickly and the complex ones put to one side to be dealt with whenever. Apart from complain bitterly to our contact there, (which we did) what could we do?
However the effects of this are really very serious.
Scarborough Borough Council gave the Futurist a stay of execution of two years, insisting that within the first year I personally was to put in a business plan for the running of the theatre in year two. I pointed out that this was an impossible and totally inappropriate request, but, once listing was agreed, the Alternative Task Force would set up a Charitable Trust, and it would be the responsibility of the Charitable Trust to develop the business plan.
In year two we were expected to show the Charitable Trust to be capable of running the theatre successfully against said Business Plan. Based on the outcome of this experiment, the borough council would make a firm decision as to the long term future. However they also said that, even in the event of success, there would be no funding made available.
As a direct result of the delay at Environmental Health and DCM&S, a whole year has been lost, and we are absolutely no further forward. Without guarantees of rights of ownership (long-leasehold at least) , it is not possible to seek the amount of funding needed from the usual sources, particularly in the absence of any council help.
It is particularly frustrating because nearly every week there is an example in “The Stage” newspaper of councils handing their theatres to Charitable Trusts with financial support and guarantees enabling them to keep open, running and develop an independent future. In our case the Futurist is getting more dilapidated by the day awaiting the listing outcome, thus costing more down the line to bring it back into reasonable working condition. In the meantime the council is going gung-ho in expanding the Open Air Theatre, already proving something of a problem in terms of return on investment, and only useable for a maximum of 12 weeks a year. David Archer mentioned that Scarborough is building a reputation for year round entertainment. Currently wishful thinking, but which could come true given the opportunity and appropriate strategic planning.
There is another side effect of all this. A successful theatre open and working all year round needs permanent team management and technical staff with long-term strategic planning, development and marketing as an integral part of their job. The right sort of staff are available to be recruited but need to be paid the going rate for the job. Because of the way in which management is obliged to run it at present, there is a dependency on willing youngsters, friends and family, and no full-time qualified technical staff, being dependent on freelancers who are available on the day. It works, just, when things are easy and familiar, but is a potential disaster waiting to happen when things get difficult. Also more stringent Codes of Working Practice driven by Trade Union, the Theatrical Management Association and Stage Management Association are going to be introduced over the coming year or so requiring greater need for well-informed and experienced theatre and technical management. This is something that a Charitable Trust will also have to know and understand.
An agreement by Scarborough Borough Council to negotiate the handing over to a Charitable Trust with or without Listing is becoming more urgent by the day. However much is dependent on what the Council’s Strategic Plans really are for the site as a whole, and entertainment in the town, and to what extent the decision making process is transparent and open and the townspeople will be consulted and given an opportunity to have an input into the final outcome.