BELLE MONT, our Sutton reporter, on the latest independent body to find fault with the south London council
Sutton’s polluting, thieving and cage-fighting Liberal Democrat councillors and ex-councillors have now attracted the anger of the usually mild-mannered Theatres Trust.
In a report published this week on the fate of Carshalton’s now dark Cryer Theatre, the Trust has condemned the council, accusing it of being “unreasonable” in trying to get a commercial rent for the community venue.
The Theatres Trust is governed by 15 Trustees who are appointed by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. The trustees include comedian and TV presenter Dara Ó Briain, former Spandau Ballet singer Gary Kemp, and Richard Johnston, the chief executive of Delfont Mackintosh Theatres.
The Trust issued its statement in response to Sutton Council’s decision to make the Charles Cryer Studio Theatre available for a commercial rent.
The theatre has been vacant since Sutton Theatres Trust, the council-appointed operators for the Cryer and the Secombe Theatre, went in to administration in August 2016.
“This leaves Sutton,” the Theatres Trust notes, “as the only London borough with no theatre provision.”
The Theatres Trust report is damning of the mishandling of public property by the Ruth Dombey-led council.
The Trust says, “Due to the terms of their agreement, when the operator went into administration, all of the theatre equipment within both venues was sold off. This will mean any new operator may face significant fit-out costs.”
According to sources around Sutton Council, the theatres closures also cost local voluntary groups large sums of money, with one youth group nearly folding as it lost £7,000 as a consequence of the closures. Meanwhile, Sutton’s Liberal Democrat councillors were handing a £1million discount on the value of a council-owned property to EcoLocal, a charity of which one of the trustees is the LibDem MP, Tom Brake. Not that Brake has any pecuniary interest in EcoLocal, of course.
“This decision to market the venue follows the council’s rejection of proposals from a community group to operate the theatre, citing the council’s need for a higher rental return,” the Theatre Trust’s report states.
“These are challenging times for local authorities and they are under tight financial pressures, however the expectation of a profit from a community facility is concerning. The theatre was previously operated directly by the council for which they will not have received a surplus, therefore the provision of a theatre at a peppercorn rent would be an appropriate response if the council no longer wished to run the service directly.
“The Theatres Trust believes the council’s expectations of a commercial rent for this community asset are unreasonable and Theatres Trust will oppose applications to change its use while there is such clear demand for a theatre from the local community.”
The creation of a situation in which a community theatre has been forced to close will be familiar to Croydon residents, who witnessed the then Tory-run council pull funding for the Warehouse Theatre in 2012. The Warehouse, which had a long and well-regarded reputation for staging new plays, also had all its fixtures and fittings sold off on the cheap by the administrator.
In Sutton, opposition politicians have been very critical of the LibDems’ handling of the closures of the Cryer and the Secombe, with one accusing the council of “mismanagement and incompetence”.
Neil Garratt, the deputy leader of Sutton’s Tories, said, “LibDem Sutton: the only London borough without a theatre. Our LibDems killed two last year by demanding a full commercial rent. Yet they allowed LibDem Tom Brake’s EcoLocal to buy The Lodge at mates’ rates because of all their supposed ‘community value’.
“It was appalling the way the council just let the theatres fold, with no more than a shrug and a look of indifference. They just didn’t do anything to help, and in fact made it worse by allowing the company running the theatres to own all the fixtures & fittings, so when they went into administration, the buildings were asset-stripped by the administrator.”
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