To receive Questions from the Public, in accordance with the Council’s Constitution.
There were three public questions received:
1. The first question was submitted by Jane Barker.
The details of the new theatre proposal has just been announced. The plans are nothing like what was originally promised, which was a theatre with capacity similar to that of the Coliseum. The proposal contains half the seating capacity of the Coliseum, and that is not good enough. How will any theatre company be able to produce financially viable theatre with such a small capacity? Last year Oldham Coliseum sold 33000 tickets for the pantomime, but the new venue will only be able to cater for half that number. That is hundreds of thousands of pounds of lost income, not to mention thousands less visitors spending money in cafes and bars in the town. Where is the ambition and aspiration of Oldham Labour Councillors to put Oldham on the map and create a visitor attraction that we can be proud of?
The Leader responded:
Our latest proposals include a 300-350 seat auditorium which has been developed over a long period of time and many conversations, with the Coliseum itself, the Arts Council, other arts and culture organisations, and members of the community. We’ve also looked at comparable well-performing producing theatres in other towns across the country many of whom have similar or even fewer numbers of seats.
We’re still developing the final designs with local arts companies but also with external experts in theatre who will help us scrutinise the detailed plans to make sure they can be profitable and it is workable. We’ll keep having conversations with technical experts ahead of submitting a planning application.
For a local authority to be committing £24 million, in this climate of austerity and challenge to our budgets, this is an absolute marker of our ambition and aspiration for arts in this town. We’re investing because we know a theatre is an important part of a thriving successful Oldham town centre and because our local communities have made this really clear when talking to us about what they want in their town. But we have to be realistic - the new theatre also has to be sustainable. Its operator has to be able to make money all year round – not just from one production a year.
On the specific issue of the pantomime – which I know is close to the hearts of lots of Oldhamers, the council has offered the use of the new event space in the Spindles with a capacity of 750 for panto in the future. This would enable the Coliseum to up capacity for that production should they need to. Obviously, their recent announcement has put this on hold but the offer is still available.
2. The second question was submitted by Kevin Leach:
I am a resident in the Borough and have worked in the arts and at the Coliseum for 17 years.I am passionate for Oldham and its people.
Given the ineptitude of the council over the years in delivering a new THEATRE in Oldham and the planned closure of the Coliseum what is the council planning to do for the 70 staff who have given so much to the town and invested in it.
These skilled workers will be lost and move elsewhere. Their money they spend and the people they bring into the town will also be lost. Their faith in the town also lost. There is no professional place for them to work in the town. So they will go elsewhere where they will be valued.
We struggle now to get a skilled workforce because of the lure of Manchester. How also do the council envisage recruitment of skilled staff for the new space given those skilled staff who now reside in the town will have no other option but to seek work outside of the borough.
The Leader responded:
We share the sadness at the Coliseum’s Board’s decision to close the theatre’s doors after 31 March 2023, and the resulting consequences this has on the staff who have given years of service to the arts and the town.
We understand why the Coliseum has had to make the recent decisions and why they are in this position, but as an independent business with charitable status the Coliseum have sole responsibility for the employment of their staff, their financial arrangements and their decisions. The Council has no say in the decisions of the Coliseum organisation.
The Council has spoken with Equity and continue to offer all the support we can while the consultation between staff and the Coliseum is ongoing. But we need to be clear – on matters of employment the Coliseum’s Board has to make those decisions.
We’re committing to a new theatre for the town, a theatre that will provide jobs for local people in the future. What we can also do to support the short-term future of arts and performance in Oldham is to commit to using the arts funding we already have, both the council’s own funding and any we receive from the Arts Council and other places to support local companies, for use with local artists and workers to support local arts organisations. This will be especially important over the next few years while we are working to retain and build audiences for the opening of the new theatre.
With regard to the need for a base for the Coliseum – we agree, that’s why we’ve been planning this new theatre with them as their new home. But the plan, which they were well aware of and supportive of, was always to move away from the building and take performances across the borough – reaching out to new audiences in anticipation of a new theatre to attract them into.
We continue to hope the Coliseum can play a role in Oldham’s cultural life and we are having conversations with the Coliseum Board to support them through this difficult time.
3. The third question was submitted by Gareth Forbes:Question to be asked by Chris Clarkson, on behalf of Gareth Forest (on behalf of Equity members):
(i) Will you guarantee that the new theatre will be a producing house?
The Leader responded, it is not in the council’s gift to guarantee this but that’s absolutely our ambition, we know how valuable a producing theatre has been to the town and we want to retain one. Our conversations with the Coliseum and Arts Council are very focused on this and we’ll do everything we can to try and ensure we retain one.
(ii) Who is going to run that theatre?
The Leader responded, on the issue of who will run it – the honest answer is we don’t yet know. The Coliseum’s news took us by surprise but as a result we need a new model for the operation of the theatre IF the Coliseum won’t be the operators. What we will say is that we’re confident about being able to shape a successful operating and business model for the new theatre and we’re already working with the Arts Council and other arts organisations locally to shape this.
(iii) What can you/ we do to ensure that the Oldham Coliseum company survives until the new building opens?
The Leader responded, the harsh reality is that the council cannot be responsible for the future of an independent organisation – its future is in the hands of its Board. What I can say is that we are in almost daily dialogue with the Coliseum Board to support them as they build a new future for themselves. The Council has submitted a proposal to the Board to help secure and save the future of the Coliseum – we are still working with them and the Arts Council to try and find a solution. Daily dialogue with the Coliseum and the Board – Council have submitted a proposal to the Board
(iv) What provision will the Council make to maintain a producing theatre company in Oldham operating from April 1st 2023, and who will run that producing company if the Coliseum as a company goes into administration?
The Leader responded, can I refer you to a previous answer about a producing theatre as this is the Council’s ambition. We are in talks about potential future operating models for the theatre but at this time, we cannot fully answer this question, as it not within the Council’s gift. Conversations with the Coliseum Board continue. A lot of this is not within the council’s gift and continue conversation with Oldham Coliseum Board
(v) How does the Council plan for the new theatre to be a viable producing house in the absence of a fly system/theatrical rigging system, which is necessary for a full pantomime production and for many live theatre production?
The Leader responded, the detailed specification for the new theatre is yet to be finalised and will be subject to full consultation at planning stage. The work to date has been shaped by external theatre specialists and local arts organisations including the Coliseum. The Council has already been in touch with other external advisors and organisations to help us scrutinise the plans as they go through the planning process. In relation to Pantomine the Coleisum has been offered the events space at the Spindles, the Council are not experts in running theatres.
(vi) Can the Council guarantee the new theatre will be commercially viable for pantomines with a 300 seat approx capacity theatre?
The Leader responded, the new theatre aims to provide a new space for performance but also new space to raise income for the operator through greater front of house provision and more useable, rentable space elsewhere in the building. The modelling work needs revisiting following recent announcements by the Coliseum, but the Council is confident that with the continued advice from external specialists the future of arts and performance in Oldham will continue to be a success. On the specific issue of the pantomime I’ll refer you to the previous relevant answer – we have offered the use of our event space should the new theatre prove too small for that show. We need a performance offer that is profitable year-round. I would not spend money on a non viable theatre
(vii) Has the Council produced an assessment of the permanent jobs the new theatre will create balanced against the job losses from the current theatre, taking into account the lack of need for specialist fly/theatre rigging staff?
The Leader responded, no, this isn’t something the council would lead on. This would be a piece of work for the future operator of the theatre. However, we’re committing to building a new theatre precisely because we want to retain both an arts offer and arts jobs in the borough.
(viii) Has the Council produced an assessment for how it will ensure it can hire the skilled staff needed for operating a new theatre and it will work to stop the loss of skilled staff from Oldham who will be made redundant from the Coliseum on 31st March 2023?
The Leader responded, again, I can’t answer this - this will be a requirement of the future theatre operator.
(ix) Is there absolutely no way the Council can support the Coliseum to remain open until after the next panto and then support the company to work peripatetically?
The Leader responded, the Council has not changed its plan to support the Coliseum either financially through the annual grant we provide or through the underwriting of its property rent and repair costs. As we have discussed earlier the plan was always for the Coliseum to leave the current building and provide great theatre in other venues while the new theatre was built. What has changed is the Coliseum Board’s decision to close the doors from March this year. We understand the financial challenges they are facing, but at this time the future of the Coliseum after March rests with that Board and questions about their future need to be asked of them. The reality was that the theatre could not continue without Arts Council Funding and that is where we are, funding from the Council has never changed we did not want them to remove the Arts Council Funding it is a producing theatre and there was a lot of work in a short space of time to undertake and the Council would support as well as we can.