Royal Hall plans hit cash hurdle

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A BID by Harrogate Theatre to take over the running of the Royal Hall looks “unlikely”, according to one of the theatre’s directors.

Russell Davidson, who is also chairman of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust, said that unless the Harrogate International Centre (HIC) changed tack, the odds were against the theatre taking over the historic venue.

In a letter to the Harrogate Advertiser, Mr Davidson said the HIC had initially suggested a first-year subsidy of £150,000 for the management of the Royal Hall, but was now offering no subsidy at all.

“The most frustrating aspect from the theatre board’s standpoint is HIC’s constant shifting of position,” he said.

Council leader Don Mackenzie said the possibility of a subsidy had not been ruled out, while HIC director Angus Houston said many different figures had been discussed during nine months of negotiations, and the proposal was yet to be finalised.

Both confirmed they are still hopeful of a deal being struck with Harrogate Theatre.

The Royal Hall, which was re-opened by the Prince of Wales in 2008 following a £10.8m restoration, is managed by Harrogate Council as part of the HIC portfolio, which lost £1m last year.

Harrogate Theatre is in talks about running the venue under lease, but Mr Davidson said discussions had reached a stalemate, and criticised the HIC’s handling of the issue.

He said the theatre was told in November that the funds available for the first-year subsidy were £150,000, with no set-up costs, but this offer had now been withdrawn ahead of a crucial theatre board meeting about the proposals.

“This shifting of the goal-posts comes despite the fact that HIC would itself remain liable for all of the Royal Hall’s running costs should it retain responsibility for the building,” he said.

“It now looks likely that, unless HIC changes tack, the theatre board will decide not to proceed with its bid to operate the Royal Hall.”

Mr Houston, director of the HIC, dismissed Mr Davidson’s statistics, saying that “lots of figures have been discussed around different scenarios”.

He told the Advertiser he remained hopeful of finding a solution, saying the appetite for the project was there.

“We are very much hoping that there’s going to be a partnership on the table at the end of it,” he said.

“There is a genuine will to create a partnership that’s going to benefit the Royal Hall and Harrogate, and put in place a sustainable long-term plan.”

The HIC’s final proposal will be published a week before a crunch council meeting on February 1. That means it will not be available in time for the theatre board’s meeting on January 16, when it had planned to make its decision about the Royal Hall.

Council leader Don Mackenzie said he had some sympathy for the theatre’s position, acknowledging that the level of subsidy proposed had changed.

“I do understand their frustrations, but they must also remember that we are guardians of taxpayers’ money and we’ve got to consider the best use of that money,” he said.

“As far as next year is concerned, the amount of contributions we can give in order to be fair to the taxpayer, that money is coming down,” he said.

“If we only had to satisfy the Royal Hall and those people who want to see it much better used, then of course it would be a straightforward thing.”

He said some taxpayers may feel that £150,000 could be better spent elsewhere, but added: “Certainly we’ve not ruled out a subsidy and I remain hopeful and very keen for the theatre, in whatever shape or form, taking over the Royal Hall from us under a lease agreement.”

Harrogate Theatre has assembled a proposed events programme for the coming year, which Coun Mackenzie said was “very, very impressive”.

But he sounded a note of caution, adding: “The more bookings you have, the more the whole operation has to be subsidised.”

l For more on the Royal Hall and HIC, see Letters, pages 10-12