No end yet for costly saga of Worthing theatres

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IT IS back to the drawing board over plans for the future of Worthing’s theatres after councillors rejected the majority of a business case submitted by its management team.

Worthing Borough Council’s senior theatres management team produced a business plan to show how it could reduce the net operating cost of the theatres by at least 25 per cent, or £217,100.

But at a meeting of the joint strategic committee, councillors said they had “identified a number of issues which will require further work to identify if there are any positive impacts they may have on the viability of the theatres operation going forward.”

Strategic director Andrew Gardiner presented an overview of the business case.

He said: “Among the plans is reduced provision at the Assembly Hall. It’s one of many new ideas which promote investment, especially a new box office system which is very keen to help unlock future opportunities in attracting new business online, increasing pre-show spend, in drinks and programmes and the introduction of a restoration levy to bring in funds.”

Before the meeting, Mr Gardiner said the theatres working group had met with Worthing Theatres Trust, which was one of the groups that submitted bids to take control of the theatres before the council decided to retain control itself on financial grounds.

“The trust felt the plan had some really good ideas, but felt further evaluation was needed to understand it,” said Mr Gardiner.

Leader of the council, Paul Yallop, said the council had been “frustrated” by the process of trying to reduce the cost of the theatres.

He said: “When the government introduced its austerity programme we knew we needed to cut spending, so we focused on the theatres. Some were concerned by our plans and alerted the local newspaper. Then we were presented with a petition which had 17,000 signatures on it.

“So, we went through the procurement process and received expressions of interest, but we were wrong-footed as none of the bids would save the level of money required, so we stopped the process which was obviously very disappointing to everyone involved.”

Mr Yallop said while he was pleased the business plan had been presented, he had “real concerns” over its content.

“If I was a bank manager and was presented this plan I would have no clue about how it would be re-paid – there’s no detail of how it might actually work,” he said.

One of the main criticisms of the business case was that it did not give detail on margins, such as the attendance levels needed, and how projected profits on catering would be met. A five-year pay-back on a new projector for the Connaught was also criticised, with councillor Mary Lermitte saying she thought the timing would clash with the introduction of digital cinema at the new Teville Gate development,

Parts of the business plan which were welcomed by the committee were the suggestion of a reduction in use of the Assembly Hall, a new booking system and bringing catering in-house across all theatres.

Mr Yallop added: “We, and the public, need to see more detail in this plan before more public money goes into the theatres.”

Peter Bailey, from Worthing Theatres, said a lot of time had gone into preparing the business plan, and thought it was “realistic”.

In making its recommendations, the committee agreed to support the team’s plan if more detail is supplied, but said a more “robust” financial case must be submitted. It said it supported a reduction in service at the Assembly Hall, while retaining Wurlitzer organ and classical concerts, agreed improvements to catering facilities and a new box office system, but not the introduction of a digital projector.

The committee also agreed to discuss possible additional resources, such as a consultant, in order to implement the plan.

An improved business plan will be put before the committee in June.