Burnley Councillors will discuss the Empire Theatre viability study at two town hall meetings this month.
The viability study is the result of a two-phase process over the last eighteen months, in which the council joined with Burnley Empire Theatre Trust, the Theatres Trust and others to consider options for the building’s future in a systematic and thorough manner.
Phase one of the viability study stated that there was an opportunity to restore the Grade II listed theatre through an incremental approach. It did, however, conclude that it would not be viable to redevelop the building as a traditional theatre.
The second phase of the viability study focused on developing the initial concept in further detail and suggests that it could be possible to develop the building as a community business comprising a music venue and club; a creative space for artists; and local community venue.
The study suggests that the long-term project could develop over several years, in stages. The first step in the process would be to form a Building Preservation Trust which would take over responsibility for the building, which is currently under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster and is not owned by the council or by any of the other organisations which took part in the viability study. The proposed Building Preservation Trust would “hold, develop and maintain” the building in the early years of the envisaged development.
The study suggests that several different organisations could come together to form this Trust.
But a report which has been sent to councillors regarding the Viability Study notes that Burnley Council is the only proposed partner “that would take on the financial risk in the short to medium term and these risks are significant”.
The suggestion that the council should take on this role needs to be set against the fact that Burnley Council’s position has been clearly and consistently stated throughout the viability study: It is that “the council would be pleased to see the local group bring the theatre back into use, however, the council would not be able to commit capital or revenue funding to the building and its operation”.
Following detailed assessment, the council report concludes that “the viability study does not present a compelling case for the council to risk significant financial resources, which are scarce and which could be invested in different projects” which would be more beneficial in terms of developing jobs, employment and Burnley’s cultural offer.
On this basis, the report recommends councillors “to not support the Council’s involvement in the project as outlined in the viability study”.
The report also points out that the council has now submitted its Local Plan for the borough as a whole and is currently undertaking a Master Planning exercise for Burnley town centre. Both of these processes will lead to a wide range of sites and potential projects being identified that would require financial intervention by the council and potential partner organisations to bring them to reality. As a result, the Council report recommends that the Empire Theatre site will be considered further as part of the town centre Master Planning exercise. Both the Burnley Empire Theatre Trust and the Theatres Trust will be consulted as part of the Master Planning exercise.
The viability study and linked report will now be discussed at the multi-party Scrutiny Committee meeting on Wednesday evening 9th August, and at the decision-making Executive Committee on Tuesday evening 15th August.
- The decision to be taken by Burnley Councillors is about whether the council should become part of a Building Preservation Trust, which would take over ownership and responsibility for the Empire Theatre building. If this step were to be taken, the council would take on unknown but potentially very expensive liabilities. At present, the main parts of the building have no ownership and ‘bona vacantia’ principles mean that these have fallen under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster for disposal.
- Burnley Council would still welcome a viable community operation or partnership operation within the Burnley Empire which did not compete with Burnley Mechanics and does not require funding from the council.
- The relationships and channels of communication which have been established between the council, Burnley Empire Theatre Trust and other organisations through working together on the viability study remain in place.
- Burnley Council will continue to assess the health and safety risks presented by the building in its current state, and will continue to act in line with its statutory responsibilities on public safety.