Theatre owners and public bodies should work together to find funding solutions for the restoration of London’s theatre buildings, because theatres are “of wider economic, heritage and cultural significance to London”, says a new report by the London Assembly.
The report, entitled Restoration Drama: Investment in West End theatre buildings, was released by the London Assembly’s Economic Development, Culture, Sport and Tourism Committee following a review of the 2003 Act Now report, which recommended £250 million of investment in West End theatres over 15 years.
This new report states that little has been done since 2003 to update the majority of theatres because the original proposal by the Department of Culture, Media & Sport, to split the £250 million equally between theatre owners and public bodies, was “unworkable”. Firstly, because “some theatre owners cannot afford to invest or are reluctant to invest for little short-term financial return”, and secondly, because public bodies, including the Arts Council England, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the London Development Agency “have limited funding available and are concerned about investing public resources in commercial enterprises”.
The investigation suggests that theatre owners should now consider nine other solutions to raise funds themselves, including introducing a ticket levy, investment by producers, corporate sponsorship, public fundraising and obtaining VAT exemptions on any building work carried out.
Meanwhile, public bodies should “give full and proper consideration to any funding applications” on a theatre-by-theatre basis, provided theatre owners demonstrate how they would fulfil criteria, by creating a business plan, prioritising the order of theatre buildings to be improved and setting up a charity through which public funding can be received.
When public funding is given, said the report, it should prioritise playhouses such as the Garrick, Comedy and Apollo, because “their small size limits their owners’ scope to make money”.
Rosemary Squire, President of The Society of London Theatre and joint Chief Executive of Ambassador Theatre Group, commented: "The Society of London Theatre welcomes the London Assembly's 'Restoration Drama' report as a valuable contribution to the debate about our West End theatre buildings. Its recognition of the importance of West End theatre to the London economy, and of the urgency of the situation, is particularly welcome, whilst its plea to the London theatre industry and to funding and regulatory bodies to pursue creative solutions to the problems facing these unique buildings will receive our full support."
Of the 49 theatres in the West End, 40 are owned commercially and three-quarters are listed buildings. Most were built before 1937 and have poor infrastructures. In the case of the Nimax-owned Garrick, where no major upgrading has been done since 1889, the report estimates £400,000 would be needed to put in new seating, with a further £500,000 to install air-conditioning.
Cameron Mackintosh is the only theatre owner to have substantially invested in improving his theatres in recent years, by carrying out £27.9 million of restoration work across seven theatres.
The report also urged the DCMS to re-establish its 2003 working group on theatre building investment in order to ensure that progress is made.