Revealed: The cost of Preston Guild Hall standing empty and the path to re-opening

Posted on - 8th July, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Politics, Preston City Centre, Preston Council, Preston Guild Hall, Preston News
The Guild Hall has not seen live events since the early part of 2019 Pic: Blog Preston

Preston Guild Hall has cost the city council nearly £4million since they took back control in 2019.

And those costs spiralled recently with rising energy, construction, legal and maintenance costs – with more than £1m spent in the 2022-23 financial year.

But the decision to seize back control of the venue – from the late Simon Rigby – has been defended by both the political and civil service leadership of the city council.

Read more: Reputational damage to Preston City Council over Guild Hall saga ‘pretty serious’

A Freedom of Information request by Blog Preston showed since 2019 the city council has ploughed £3.99m into the entire building – with only £557,989 to show for it. A loss of £3.4m.

Councillor Martyn Rawlinson, cabinet member for resources and deputy leader of the city council, said: “It is important to remember when we sold the Guild Hall to Simon Rigby it was losing more than £1million a year for us.

“So although, yes, it is costing us money now it is not costing us as much as it did back in the period of 2010 to 2014 when we were trying to work out a future for it beyond mothballing the venue.”

What it’s costing per year

Below is the breakdown of the cost per year for the Guild Hall

And where the money went in the most recent financial year

The RAAC in the roof

The venue, which stands empty, now has the crumbly concrete – known as RAAC – in the roof panels of both the Grand Hall venue and the Charter Theatre. This meant proposals to re-open the venue last year had to be abandoned and structural engineers brought in to assess the challenge of making the venue safe. The wider building, including the foyer and the shopping arcade, remains safe to access and is open.

Adrian Phillips, chief executive of Preston City Council, told Blog Preston: “We are awaiting the detailed inspection by engineers of the RAAC and then we will know the full plans and costing for ensuring the venues are safe to use.

“Because of the way the venues, particularly the Grand Hall are designed, the concrete that needs inspecting can only be reached by putting up large-scale scaffolding inside the building for the engineers to work safely.

“As you can appreciate there are lots of structures across the country – schools, hospitals, other public buildings – which have RAAC and are in need of inspection. Unfortunately the Guild Hall will always be lower priority for securing a place with the likes of engineers to be dealt with.”

Blog Preston understands the asbestos works are due to be complete by the end of July, allowing the structural surveys to be completed.

Mr Phillips said they hoped the Charter Theatre – which has a flat roof – would be a simpler and cheaper solution to resolve the RAAC issue.

Cllr Rawlinson added: “Once we have that cost for dealing with the RAAC we can then move forward with trying to find a solution for the Guild Hall. Until then it’s very difficult to have conversations with potential partners or funders because when it comes to insurance and assurances it all centres on the RAAC.”

Even without the additional costs of dealing with the RAAC the Guild Hall building is losing the city council an average of £2,000-a-day – at a time when the council’s funding from central government has been reduced and the council is also attempting a major investment programme in building the Animate cinema and the restoration of the Harris.

What is the future of the building?

The venue, which the city council say was in bad repair when they changed the locks and took it back from the Rigby organisation in 2019, dates back to the 1970s and was a purpose-built multi-function venue and building.

Mr Phillips said: “There’s nothing else really like it in the country. It is a building unique to Preston.

“We have needed to make substantial repairs and investments over the last few years, especially since the legal case concluded with the Rigby group, to ensure the building is complaint with all kinds of rules and regulations.

“For context, every door needed inspecting for the potential for any remedial works to it – and there’s 500 doors in that building.”

Preston has now been without a large-scale venue for nearly half-a-decade but Cllr Rawlinson – who has the future of the Guild Hall within his portfolio as deputy leader – said they were ruling out nothing in terms of getting it operating it again.

He told Blog Preston: “I think everyone knows our ethos as a Labour council, we’d run everything in house if we could.

“But with the state of the funding settlements we have at the moment then we know that’s not possible and for the Guild Hall we will explore every option.”

Pushed on whether this would include borrowing money to finance re-opening the building, Cllr Rawlinson did not rule it out.

He said: “There’s a lot of options, but I think what people don’t realise is pretty much all venues have some kind of subsidy. Either in the form of government funding, local or central, Arts council funding, sponsorship, there’s money coming in to help finance the venue itself – as they are not cheap to run.”

Asked if the city council would consider changing the name of the building to accommodate a sponsorship or partnership, both Mr Phillips and Cllr Rawlinson did not rule it out.

Mr Phillips said: “That is a very common practice, although it is generally with much larger venues than the Guild Hall.

“Of course if the right partner came forward we’d be welcome to discussing it.”

Mr Phillips added they were confident the city council could secure ‘significant funding’ from the likes of the Arts Council in future to help with reopening the Guild Hall.

He said: “Preston, and the North West more generally, has a fairly low uptake and attendance when it comes to arts and cultural events.

“Through the likes of the Encounter Festival and the Harris restoration we’ve shown consistently we can bring in very large sums of funding to help with these types of projects. I’d hope we could make a very strong case for support with the Guild Hall.

“When it comes to the RAAC there hasn’t been any government commitment for cultural venues which have RAAC to help with reopening them or dealing with the issues – but we remain in conversation with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and they are aware of the situation.”

While the city council’s desire may be to re-open the venue as a fully council operated venue across both the Grand Hall and Charter Theatre, the reality is the previous incarnation cost more than £1million-a-year to have an in-house events team – and this would be closer to £2million now given inflation in the last decade.

Work is ongoing to try and bring the Guild Hall’s foyer into use during the Autumn.

So far it has held election counts and the Mayor’s charity dinner gala.

Mr Phillips said: “It has a capacity of around 500 and there’s a lot of work going on to ensure it can operate as a venue for small-scale gigs, comedy and some other performances too.”

An extraordinary cabinet meeting is due to take place this week for councillors to be updated on plans to get the foyer operating as a venue.

Cllr Rawlinson said: “The team continues to move forward with a business case for reopening the Guild Hall Foyer for comedy, music and local events. An extraordinary Cabinet meeting has been called to progress these plans and to consider pulling together a suggested programme of events.”

What does it take to run a venue like the Guild Hall?

We spoke to a leisure and entertainment consultant, Matt Barnwell, who has run a number of venues and festivals.

He is also a ‘guru’ for the Music Venue Trust – who recently helped broker a deal to Save The Ferret in the city – and advises on the profitability of venues.

Mr Barnwell told Blog Preston: “There’s no doubt a venue of the Guild Hall, particularly the Grand Hall, is a difficult venue going forward.

“That kind of space – 2,000 capacity – is awkward in today’s market. That’s because your big acts are never going to tour and play somewhere that small but it’s also too big for up and coming acts.

“So you’re faced with a lot of tribute acts and bands who perhaps have a loyal following but are on their way down the bill at the festivals.

“But, things are improving a bit in the live music market – so it is possible.”

Read more: See what’s on in and around Preston

Mr Barnwell said it was important not to over-fixate on the venues and the building as a whole represented an opportunity.

He said: “There’s not that many multi-use venues and there’s an advantage compared to a lot of venues in that you’d assume the council are not going to charge themselves rent and rates for using the building.

“That immediately makes it a more attractive proposition to someone, especially if the council is willing to cut a deal that helps an operator.

“There’s very few national operators who have multiple venues these days – the likes of Academy Group spring to mind – and what would be the incentive for them to take on somewhere like the Guild Hall and Preston? It’s limited incentive I would say.

“What I’d be looking to work towards is a more localised solution that involves the community in every aspect of the building.”

Mr Barnwell said venues on the whole spend a third of their budgets on staffing, a third on products such as live acts and food and drink and then the final third on their overheads and rents. He said while the main venues may be challenging in terms of the financials the smaller spaces could be tackled first.

He said: “If you asked me 12 months ago about re-opening a venue then I’d say it’s definitely not the time, but with energy prices now falling then it is becoming more viable.

“There’s no doubt post-Brexit there’s fewer touring acts now, so you’ve got an over-supply of venues.

“This doesn’t mean the Guild Hall can’t be done. What needs to happen is you take each element of the building and chip away at finding a use for it, ideally involving a local organisation.

“Using local providers means they have skin in the game, they are always going to work that bit more to give a great experience rather than say doing it all in-house. Someone just employed as part of an overall events team isn’t necessarily going to be that motivated to find the best product.

“There’s also the challenge of the amount of money needed to just get the venue upright again and booking acts – and the lead time associated with that. You can’t just get someone to play next week, there’s a really long lead time to book acts – especially at that 2,000-size-venue capacity.

“The theatre, that sounds more viable to be honest, as you’ve got a smaller capacity and regular shows like pantos and more community-focused events which can take place and will get booked and draw people in.

“So looking at every space – can you get rehearsal rooms going, a local record store booking into the foyer space for a bigger space than their in-stores, give the main venue to a mix of promoters who specialise and even if they are getting it filled every other weekend then 2,000 people in the venue is better than none.”

Read more: Opinion: Focus on ‘run down’ Preston continues to baffle me

The impact on the wider city centre of the Guild Hall being shut

Jonathon (left) with Paul Yates and Simon the chef (right).
Paul Yates (centre) who has taken on the Winckley Street Ale House

Nestled in the cobbled Winckley Street off Fishergate is the Winckley Street Ale House – taken on by Paul Yates last year.

The relatively modest bar can hold around 60 or so people with more outside when the weather is nice.

Mr Yates has been vocal about the need to re-open the Guild Hall.

He said: “I’m a Preston boy. I grew up on Callon. For me re-opening the Guild Hall isn’t just about business, it’s about identity. My identity, the city’s identity and our children’s identity.

“My memories of the place range from going there for schools musical competitions through to seeing Gary Numan just before it shut down in 2019.”

Mr Yates, ironically, was off to see Gary Numan in Manchester the evening he was speaking to me.

He said: “I think that sums it up though, over the last few years we’ve been to Blackpool, Chorley, Morecambe, Blackburn, Manchester and more to see shows – because there’s nothing coming to Preston.

“I’m sure some acts would come if there was a venue to play at.”

Read more: One year on from the Winckley Street Ale House takeover

Mr Yates said the re-opening of the venue, in any shape or form – even with the foyer of 500 people – would only be a positive for his business.

He said: “From running this place for the last year then I’ve learned an awful lot, and footfall is one of the biggest things.

“We’ve got a good reputation and people coming into town, or coming off the trains, we’re one of the places on the way that people do seek out.

“When there’s events on, from the football to the PubFest we put on last year as a collective of venues, then we see that lift.

“Sometimes it might just be an extra twenty to thirty people but for a place of our side that makes a large difference to how the day has gone.

“That might mean we’re able to extend some hours, put on some more beers, or employ more staff. All of those are a win for the city.”

Preston’s Business Improvement District manager Mark Whittle, who represents city centre businesses, said: “The Guild Hall being closed over recent years has had an impact on the wider business community. Businesses in neighbouring towns and cities, with a major events venue, definitely feel a positive influence in having such an offer, particularly those in the hospitality sector.

“Whilst businesses understand the challenges faced by the City Council, in terms of RAAC being identified, and the cost of remedying the issue, they are hopeful of a solution, as soon as possible. A city like Preston, that’s well connected, has a loyal customer base, and benefits from a strong university population, should have access to a suitable large-scale venue with an attractive programme of events and shows.

“It’s positive news that the Foyer is being brought back in to use, and businesses are excited to see the Council’s proposed programme of events, utilising the space. Whilst it’s not the ‘full’ Guild Hall offer, a well-curated programme of activities, and shows, would be a step in the right direction.”

Read more: As Preston Youth Zone starts to go up, what future for former Tithebarn pub?

What’s happening elsewhere?

Both Blackpool and Blackburn operate significant venues, with the Winter Gardens hosting concerts of 3,500 capacity and the Empress Ballroom 3,000 and King George’s Hall a similar size.

The Guild Hall can take around 2,000 people in the Grand Hall and the Charter Theatre has space for nearly 800 people – and is seen as a venue that’s difficult to book for when it comes to touring act. Being too small for big headline artists and too big for up and coming acts.

Mr Phillips said: “I can understand why people make comparisons to Blackpool and Blackburn, and we have had conversations particularly with the King George’s Hall team to understand their set up.

“But they are fundamentally different venues and in different markets.”

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