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Hope for Preston Guild Hall foyer to open this year as five years of closure draws near

Posted on - 30th April, 2024 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, Business, Preston City Centre, Preston Council, Preston Guild Hall, Preston News, Redevelopment
Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston
Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston

The leader of Preston City Council says the authority remains committed to the future of the Guild Hall, as the fifth anniversary of its closure draws near.

Labour’s Matthew Brown said he was “standing behind” the venue in response to a call from Conservative opposition group leader Sue Whittam to speed up plans to reopen the foyer area of the building as a smaller, stop-gap events space.

The exchange came during a Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) election debate, which also saw Liberal Democrat group leader John Potter urge the city council also to look to the long term and consider the kind of facility that might replace the half-century old hall when it finally comes to the end of its life.

Read more: BBC Radio 2 In The Park expected to be ‘multi-million pound boost’ for Preston

The doors were set to swing open again in November last year for the Guild’s first gig since its sudden – but, at the time, seemingly temporary –  shut down in May 2019 over claims that more than 200 creditors were owed a total of more than £4.5m by the company then in control of the venue.

However, the city council’s seizing of the Guild Hall the following month – and a subsequent  legal wrangle – silenced the much-loved music, entertainment and sporting stage for more than four years.

With that row finally resolved just over 12 months ago, the planned November event – the rescheduled Preston Weekender – had been intended as a showcase of what the 2,000-capacity theatre still had to offer in a bid to attract a new operator.  But just eight weeks beforehand, fears – later confirmed – that the Main Hall and Charter Theatre contained the material dubbed ‘crumbling concrete’, or RAAC, put paid to the long-awaited comeback.

With uncertainty once again being the only thing certain about the Guild Hall’s future, the city council announced plans earlier this year to make use of the foyer, which can hold 500 guests and has previously operated as an venue in its own right.   At February’s budget meeting, deputy leader Martyn Rawlinson said the hope was the area could be brought into use sometime this year.

At the LDRS election debate, Cllr Whittam said that the recent use of the space for the mayor’s ball – and its hosting of the local vote count later this week – meant there was “no reason” why the foyer could not be opened quickly to stage events for the public.

“We definitely need a venue in Preston at the moment.   I went to the Grand at Clitheroe [recently] – it’s a small venue, [but] it brings in loads of business and people; and that’s what we need.

“I’m not asking for a big MEN Arena type of thing, but just something that’s [in] the centre of Preston, [because] it’s really important to people who live [here].

“Then they use all the facilities in Preston in itself – the restaurants and the bars – because they make a night of it. I think we need to get that up and running as soon as possible,” Cllr Whittam said.

Cllr Brown reaffirmed the intention that the foyer would be open “this year”.

He added:  “It’s not anyone’s fault that we found RAAC [reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete].  If we had a government that was supportive, [they would] make money available to councils to deal with it…quickly – but we don’t.

“We’re trying to find a way of dealing with that going forward – but the plan is geared…up in the next few months.  And then, obviously, we need to look at how we can actually open the rest of the building because…there is RAAC and that needs to be dealt with.

“We’re standing behind the Guild Hall, we want it open again, but…it’s not always that easy when we have issues around financing [and] around finding things like RAAC in the roof,” Cllr Brown said.

At this year’s budget, the Liberal Democrats put forward a motion – which was defeated – for the city council to invest £50,000 in a feasibility study to explore the future of the venue over the course of the coming 20-30 years.

At the election debate, Cllr Potter said:  “Buildings have certain lifespans and the Guild Hall, at most, is going to have a few decades left.

“What we need in Preston, more than anything else, is actually a conference venue. So we need to plan for what’s next – and to do that, you have to have an idea. If the money becomes available, or an opportunity presents itself, you can grab it and say, ‘This is what we want for our city.’

“What we need is also a change of the bigger levers of power – whatever happens [at] the general election, something has got to change to make our towns and cities more able to thrive.

“The Lib Dems have already done their big pitch about taking…business rates and actually moving that burden away from the tenant and onto the landlord as a way of getting life into some of these streets. And it’s going to be those sorts of initiatives that are really going to breathe new life into places like Preston,” Cllr Potter added.

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