I recently took part in a round-table discussion about London’s theatres.
One of the key issues discussed was how the planning system might feed into the creation of new venues in the capital.
This is a crucial question to be asking now and it will be fascinating to read the final report on these issues for the Greater London Authority, which is being undertaken by BOP Consulting with the Theatres Trust and Stamp.
When the London Theatre Report was published in 2014, there were 241 professional theatres. Since then, that ecosystem has grown. Most additions have been via section 106 agreements, through which property developers are given planning permission on the basis of providing cultural facilities.
In London at least, this is the future for new theatre buildings. The years of plenty when Lottery money was given to lavish capital projects is long gone. That cash is now used by the Arts Council to shore up its diminishing exchequer funding to support the day-to-day running of theatre companies. It’s also unlikely there will be regular public funding available for new theatre companies in London. The direction of travel is firmly towards the regions.
In this context, section 106 agreements will provide the most likely means for the creation of new theatres in London. However, they should be approached with care.
If we are to create more theatres in London, what business models are they going to operate on if no public money is available?
There is an intrinsic problem. Property developers want to give over as little space as possible for cultural provision, but to make a theatre work commercially, you need a certain number of seats and – preferably – a food and drink operation to bring in a secondary income.
The Other Palace and the Bridge are examples of this working in practice, although the Other Palace has faced challenges due to a smaller-than-ideal auditorium. It is still too early to tell how successful the significantly larger (and better designed) Bridge will be. On a not-for-profit basis, the New Diorama has shown how these types of planning gains can work if you have enlightened developers on board.
The alternative to these models is a proliferation of new small fringe spaces, that fail to pay theatre workers living wages.
This is extremely problematic. If ‘profit-share’ productions are hardly considered best practice when staged in back rooms above pubs, they will look positively distasteful in luxury property developments.