Hippodrome campaigners fight back after council propose to revoke lease on theatre

Dudley Council’s cabinet will be asked this week to approve proposals which would see the keys to the town’s former Hippodrome theatre handed back to the local authority.

Officers say Black Country Hippodrome Ltd – which was handed a five-year lease to the building by the council in December 2016 – has failed to achieve key milestones, despite being given extra time.

The report, which will go before the council’s cabinet at a meeting on February 8th, says a number of targets were agreed upon with a cut off date of August last year, as a condition of the lease. However bosses claim that four of those – completing and documenting a feasible funding strategy; providing that funding strategy to the landlord; carrying out a complete feasibility study on the project and starting to carry out building surveys and drawing up a proposed scheme – have not been achieved, despite the council granting the group an extra three months to show it could meet them. Councillor Patrick Harley, leader of the council, said:

“It is with regret and a heavy heart that we have to do this. We wanted [Black Country Hippodrome Ltd] to make it work. We have given the group every opportunity, including extra time, to prove it could get this off the ground - now we feel is the time to say enough is enough.

“Whilst some progress has been made in certain aspects, that progress has been slow. The council feels there is not enough clear evidence in place to give us a belief the group can deliver what it wants to deliver.

“Let’s not forget, when the group were handed the keys, they pledged to have it open by 2020. We’re only two years away from that and it’s difficult to see what has been done other than a lick of paint. It’s still full of asbestos, they can’t even get in there at the moment because it’s so unsafe.

“While this is ongoing, the Hippodrome building is an eyesore. It can’t become another Cavendish House – not on my watch, particularly as we have finally got a solution for that building.

“We’ve given them every chance – now is the time to look forward and see what other options we have.”

Architects have drawn up plans for the facade and an extension to the building which will increase floor space and help modernise the venue.An artists impression of how Dudley Hippodrome could look

However the directors of Black Country Hippodrome Ltd have hit back at the claims, citing the council's terms as intentionally restricting their ability to meet those milestones. A spokesperson said:

"The Council’s line regarding the apparent ‘lack’ of progress in respect of mutually agreed ‘milestones’ has not changed since a joint meeting held in mid-September 2017.

"Then as now, the Council say that only one of these five milestones has been met; whereas BCHL contend that much more progress than this has been made, and that there have also been considerable advances in areas of the project not covered by the milestones. One of the milestones we agreed with the Council required free access to the building – how could we deliver on this when we were prevented from entering it? 

"It's nonsense to say that we have not made any funding applications when we have in fact made three. One major stumbling block has been the short length of the lease – five years is not long enough for major funders, who also do not like ‘break clauses’ such as the annual milestone review, which the Council is currently invoking. However, this was the only lease available. These things take time, which the Council is denying us.

"It has also emerged that Dudley Council has been holding talks with Dudley College over future use of the site for expansion. How can such discussions happen without us, as lessees, even being made aware of them? This is discourteous in the extreme."

Black Country Radio's theatre critic, Dan Richards, added:

"I understand the council's desire to get things moving but it would be a real coup for the Black Country to have a theatre like this back in regular use. If it could be refurbished to a high standard and found a place on the touring circuit, it would be worth its weight in gold. This isn't another civic hall style venue - this would be a major player in the theatre world.

"Whilst I appreciate they don't want a financial commitment, Dudley Council would need to be in support of the Hippodrome for it to become a reality. All you need to do is look at other major venues in the West Midlands and they proudly display their own authorities logo's on their website.

"Theatre attendance once again increased last year and, outside the capital, ticket sales for musicals alone increased by £20m. It does seem like hurdles are being placed and decisions have been made already. Let's not let this become another car park - once it's gone, you can't get it back."

At the meeting, the cabinet will be asked to approve recommendations which would see the authority’s legal services department instructed to start procedures leading to forfeiture of the lease. If that is approved, a further report will go before the cabinet at a meeting later in the year setting out proposals for the future use of the building and site.


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