Issue - decisions

Urgent Business -Investing in a New Theatre for Oldham

28/02/2023 - Urgent Business -Investing in a New Theatre for Oldham

Councillor Brownridge declared an other interest in Items 6 and 11 Investing in a New Theatre in Oldham, by virtue of her Council appointment as a trustee of the Coliseum Board. She left the room and took no part in the vote thereon.

Consideration was given to a report of the Executive Director, Place and Economic Growth. Director of Public Health (with responsibility for Culture) and Assistant Chief Executive which provided details of the delivery of a new theatre in Oldham Town Centre.

The planned new theatre building was successful in gaining Towns Deal funding from central government in June 2021 and work had progressed significantly with detailed plans well advanced.  It was proposed that the new theatre be progressed through a further consultation ahead of submitting a planning application, and funding arrangements confirmed, including the use of Towns Deal.

Alongside this, Oldham had been offered access to £1.845 million of Arts Council funding to provide performance, arts and culture across the borough over the next three-years. In order to access this funding, Oldham Council had a requirement to indicate its acceptance of this funding and to recommit to the development of a new theatre for the borough.

Oldham Coliseum began as a circus on Henshaw Street dating back to 1885, known then as the Colosseum. Built in 1887, the current theatre building based on Fairbottom Street, off Yorkshire Street, in Oldham Town Centre, had been used as a music hall and a cinema, before reopening in 1938, as the Oldham Repertory Theatre.  The Oldham Rep lasted until 1978 when it was reconstituted as the Oldham Coliseum Theatre.

The current Fairbottom Street building, the adjacent office building and car park are leased by the Coliseum from the Council on a rent-free arrangement.

In 2012 Oldham Council invested £2 million into the Fairbottom Street theatre, upgrading audience areas, replacing seating, improving heating and updating ventilation. However, even with this level of investment, both the Coliseum Board and Management Team, and Oldham Council agreed that the current building could not meet the long-term needs of the theatre: it’s performers, staff and its audiences deserved better.

Problems with accessibility, a lack of quality back-stage and front of house facilities and a growing list of maintenance issues common to old buildings were evident (including asbestos and lack of provision for disabled performers and visitors). A full building survey, undertaken at the time (2012), gave the building a ten-year lifespan.

The scale of the issues found and Oldham Coliseum’s requirement for better facilities meant that renovating, refurbishing, repurposing or re-investing in the building was not possible. In addition, the size and topography of the site meant that rebuilding on the current site would be restrictive and very expensive as a result. In 2012, both Oldham Coliseum and Oldham Council agreed that a new theatre building on a new site was required.

Since this time, the Council has continued to undertake and pay for structural maintenance required to the building (c.£20k per year for the last ten years) as the internal maintenance, repairs and building H&S compliance falls to the Coliseum management team for up-keep.

With the ongoing issues with the building itself, work has continued between Oldham Council, Arts Council England and Oldham Coliseum Board and management team (three organisations also referenced as “the partnership” in this report) to find and create a new home for the Coliseum, and a new space for arts and performance in the town.

Over the last ten years, the partnership had developed plans for two different theatre projects, but challenges of design and layout, plus the need for a sustainable business model for the Coliseum as the future operator of the site, have meant these projects were not deliverable.

However, the development of a new theatre had remained a priority given the acknowledged issues with the current building, and this agreed approach with the partnership was central in the development of Oldham’s Cultural Strategy which recognised how important arts and performance were to the town and the wider area.

In 2019/20 Oldham Council, the Arts Council and Oldham Coliseum (the partnership) jointly reviewed options once again for a new theatre – existing site and others in the town centre - and bringing back-to-life the heritage buildings (the Old Post Office and former Quaker Meeting House) on Union Street was the preferred location / site. This site was at the heart of Oldham’s growing cultural quarter, close to Oldham Gallery and Library and next door to the Old Library, which was currently being redeveloped following consultation with local communities and feedback to bring empty heritage buildings back into use as part of the Council’s Creating a Better Place Strategy.

Linked to the new Cultural Strategy for Oldham, in August 2020 the ongoing partnership between the Coliseum, Arts Council England and Oldham Council saw the development of a new performance venue. The Oldham Making Space for Live Performance Feasibility report and Making Space Vision provided the basis for the current project design and subsequent successful application for a Towns Fund grant to support the delivery of this important new building. 

In late 2022, following some issues with the walls at the back of the stage, a further full building survey was commissioned. This survey, completed in January 2023, found that the building needed numerous urgent health and safety compliance works. The Coliseum had been given this report (appended to Part B report) and they had been asked to urgently action the works to ensure compliance while the doors are open till the end of March.  This survey confirmed the conclusion of the 2012 survey that the building was beyond its expected lifespan.


The plan, agreed by all parties, and acknowledging the life-span of the current building was always that Oldham Coliseum would leave the Fairbottom Street theatre building. However, the Coliseum would continue to perform in a range of different venues across the borough – building new audiences in anticipation and readiness for the new theatre opening in 2025/26.


A new theatre for Oldham

The proposals in this report were for a new £24.5 million theatre at the Union Street site that had been developed by the partnership to provide a modern, accessible venue for audiences from Oldham and beyond.

The new theatre would provide a more modern, accessible venue for performers and audiences from Oldham and beyond. The proposals included a new 300-350 seat auditorium and more intimate 120 seat studio for performance space, together with enhanced back-stage facilities, additional education, event and rehearsal space and better front-of house facilities including bar and café areas, for audiences to enjoy. The new theatre would revitalize Oldham’s cultural offer and create additional jobs, both in the venue and from the surrounding area.

The space was being designed, not only as a home for Oldham Coliseum, but for use by other local arts and community organisations for both local and visiting audiences. The plans are at an advanced stage and have been developed by members of the current Oldham Coliseum Board and other cultural organisations with support from the Arts Council.


Oldham Coliseum Theatre (the Organisation)

The Oldham Coliseum had benefited from Arts Council funding as one of its National Portfolio Organisations (NPO) over a number of years. This funding accounted for around a third of their income alongside grants from other organisations and revenue from their successful productions.

Oldham Coliseum was provided with annual cultural funding from Oldham Council of £138,000 per year. Alongside this the Coliseum was also provided with rent-free use of the current theatre building, office space and car park: they also lease separate storage facilities from the Council. In addition, the Greater Manchester Combined Authority has provided annual funding to Oldham Coliseum of c.£100,000 per year through the GM Culture Fund (2020-23).

In 2022 the Oldham Coliseum submitted a bid to retain its National Portfolio Organisation status and funding for the period 2023-2026. In November 2022, the Arts Council announced that this bid had been unsuccessful deeming it ‘high risk’ and referencing concerns about the theatre’s financial management, leadership and governance. 

Following the Arts Council funding announcements in November, the Chief Executive of Oldham Coliseum left the organisation and, shortly after, the Chair of the Board resigned followed by the Vice-Chair. Chris Lawson, previously the Coliseum’s Artistic Director, stepped up as Interim Chief Executive and an Interim Chair and Vice-Chair were appointed to the Board.

Oldham Council had worked with the Arts Council since November to support the Coliseum as they worked to make changes to their programme, their organisation and sought to meet the challenges they were facing. Unfortunately, in February 2023, acknowledging the significant financial challenges they were facing, Oldham Coliseum announced its intention to close its doors stating “the current financial situation is not sustainable for the running of a full-time theatre”. 


Arts Council Funding for Oldham

Despite being unable to include the Oldham Coliseum among its National Portfolio organisations, the Arts Council, acknowledging both Oldham’s designation as a levelling up place for culture and our commitment to investing in new cultural offers for the town, have ringfenced £1.845 million over three years to support the delivery of local arts and culture.

In November 2022, at the time that the outcome of the Coliseum’s funding bid was announced, Oldham Council were informed by the Arts Council that this ringfenced funding would be made available. Since then, the Arts Council have provided further information on the purpose and means of access for these funds, including that the funding must be used to: 

To access this funding, Oldham Council has been asked by the Arts Council to provide a detailed plan for its proposed programme of activity and confirmation that the council intends to progress with plans for the new theatre.


The future for the Oldham Coliseum

Oldham’s new theatre was always intended to be the future home of the Oldham Coliseum with work already underway to develop a new operating and production model for the new theatre. The Council and Arts Council remain confident in the ability to form a strong operating and business model for a producing theatre without the Coliseum should that be required.

The timings for the new theatre continued to be supported by the Arts Council and the Coliseum, and it was always the plan for the Coliseum to move out of its current home (in line with the expected life-span of the Fairbottom Street site) and to produce and perform works elsewhere in other venues across the borough, and wider areas, for a period while the new theatre was built.  This would allow them to continue providing art for local audiences and, importantly, build new audiences in anticipation and readiness for the new theatre.

As part of these discussions, and, recognising the love and loyalty that theatre goers have for the Oldham Coliseum name and history, Oldham Council were continuing conversations with the Coliseum Board to try and retain some of the artistic legacy.


Options/Alternatives considered

Options considered over the past decade, with a summary included earlier in this report, relating to:

           The future of the Coliseum building;

           The location, size, and requirements for a theatre building in Oldham;

           The funding arrangements and receipt of external grant support   (Council Capital Strategy and Town Deal); and

           The emerging business case and detailed project plans (Town Deal).


RESOLVED – That the Cabinet would consider the commercially sensitive information at Item 11 of the agenda before making a decision.