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“The fight isn’t over” to save Oldham Coliseum as Arts Council England talks end in stalemate

Crunch talks aimed at saving Oldham’s Coliseum theatre and protecting dozens of jobs have ended in stalemate but campaigners say the fight ‘isn’t over’.

The performance union Equity met with Arts Council England representatives at their office in Manchester on Thursday afternoon with the hope of finding a solution to the funding crisis facing the theatre company, and the 70 people employed there facing redundancy.

It comes as the Coliseum Theatre is due to close its doors permanently on March 31, after being dropped from the Arts Council funding portfolio in November.

A public meeting at the Fairbottom Street theatre in February saw 400 people turn out to support the Oldham venue. Last month Oldham council also agreed to ‘recommit’ to the development of a replacement new theatre in the borough – but which wouldn’t open until 2026.

Councillors also formally accepted £1.84m of Arts Council England (ACE) funding to provide cultural activity for the next three years.

The Coliseum had been removed from ACE’s funding portfolio after the organisation deemed it ‘high risk’ and raised concerns about the theatre’s financial management, leadership and governance.

However outside the offices on Lever Street in Manchester, following talks with the arts body, general secretary of Equity Paul Fleming said: “We’re disappointed with the decision, we’re disappointed with the strategy, we’re disappointed with the structure of the Arts Council and we’re disappointed with their policies and proposals.

“Culture funding should be regionalised and put into the hands of the communities and the artists who make it, not in the hands of people several hundred miles away.

“Nobody in this part of the world would have chosen to make this decision that is very clear.

“We have really serious strategic concerns concerns about what Oldham is. This isn’t just about a building in one part of Greater Manchester, this is about a community and it is about the sustainability of our industry in the region.”

The Arts Council has committed to providing £1.845m to Oldham over the next three years, with money to be allocated to bids coming from the local authority.

Mr Fleming added: “There’s no good reason why that [existing] theatre can’t have the artistic programme for the people of Oldham right up until pantomime and a new plan that happens; it could be produced in car parks, in streets, in schools, in town halls between now and the opening of a new theatre. That’s what we want that money spent on, culture for local people.

“There is then a conversation to be had about making sure that the money that’s been allocated is used for community programmes and actually delivering culture, and not just for redundancies and destroying the artistic workforce – that is the next stage of the campaign.”

He said they would also be stepping up pressure on other arts organisations in the region to employ local actors.

“We have to be really clear that 20pc of actor work in Greater Manchester is under threat as a result of this decision. That is an enormous impact on our members and an enormous impact as well on the sustainability of culture in the north west as a whole,” the union chief added.

“It’s certainly not over. And it’s not over until we have won a commitment to ensure that those 400 actor weeks a year, the same level of actor employment is met within Greater Manchester.”

Mr Fleming said that they had heard nothing ‘particularly new’ from the Arts Council, but that they had said that they would seek that ‘actor weeks’ – the level of actor employment – would be respected in any bid that comes forward from Oldham council for the £1.845m funding allocated to the borough for culture.

“It’s very, very clear to us that if a bid comes forward from the council that’s not a producing theatre that’s rooted in the community and that is engaging the same number of actors and backstage professionals, we are not going to be happy,” he added.

“The ball is very much still in the court of the local authority and also the Arts Council when they assess their bid.”

Oldham council chiefs want to open a new ‘more modern’ theatre – which would be smaller than the 585-seat Coliseum – at 84 Union Street, in the Old Post Office and former Quaker Meeting House.

The Union Street venue would have an auditorium with between 300 and 350 seats, as well as a 120-seat studio. It forms the third masterplan for a new theatre in the past ten years, with previous projects deemed ‘not deliverable’.

It would also include enhanced backstage facilities, and front of house areas such as a bar and a café. And education, event and rehearsal spaces would also be part of the designs, the council states.

Council leader Amanda Chadderton said they had offered the new theatre the use of anew event space that will be created in Spindles shopping centre with a capacity of 750 for seasonal pantomimes.

Mr Fleming said they had also clarified with ACE that the funding was ‘expected but not required’ to be spent on a new theatre.

A spokesperson for Arts Council England said: “We invited Equity to meet with us today to hear the concerns of their members. We don’t fully recognise the account that they have given of the meeting.

“Oldham Coliseum Ltd has been facing financial and governance challenges for some time and as guardians of public money we could not invest in an organisation at such a high risk.

“We’re standing by our commitment to invest £1.85 million in performing arts in Oldham over the next three years, which will create new opportunities for artists and audiences.”

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