Stage is set for... What can be done with Leicester's Haymarket Theatre?
The Haymarket theatre has stood empty for four-and-a-half years, at a cost to the taxpayer of some £115,000 a year. Adam Wakelin asks what can be done with it – and the city’s other disused buildings.
ATV studio, conference hall, cinema and, erm, a theatre – just a few of the suggestions from Mercury readers about what to do with Leicester's long-defunct Haymarket Theatre.
With all due respect, you can't help but feel that no one has yet come up with what marketing types call the killer app.
Which is hardly surprising. Leicester City Council has not managed to find a suitable role for the Haymarket in four-and-a-half years.
So it's stood empty, casting an increasingly forlorn shadow over what's supposed to be a prime piece of the retail scene.
Worse still, it has been costing us money – £115,000 a year in service charges paid by the council to IMG Britannica, the property investment company that owns the freehold.
That's £517,000 – not exactly loose change in these straitened times – for a building doing nothing.
Which was never part of the plan, was it?
Four months before the theatre's closing night on January 28, 2007, this newspaper wondered what was going to become of it.
With the bigger and better Curve going up around the corner, few seemed to have given the Haymarket's future much thought.
One of Leicester's biggest buildings could be boarded up for years to come, we warned.
No it won't, insisted Tory councillor John Mugglestone, then cabinet lead for environment on the Liberal Democrat/Conservative-controlled authority.
"We have a policy of making sure council houses don't stand empty, never mind a building like this in the middle of the city," said Coun Mugglestone.
But it has. Not just under the Lib Dems and Conservatives, but a couple of Labour leaderships, too.
A plan to convert the building into a youth centre was abandoned this year as unaffordable.
Mayor Sir Peter Soulsby said enough was enough last month, putting the theatre up for sale and asking for ideas to bring it back into use. Whether a buyer can be found remains to be seen.
You could argue the Haymarket is but one example of the council's inability to manage its property portfolio.
There are others – the old post office in Bishop Street, the former register office in Pocklington's Walk and Braunstone Hall to name but three – grand old buildings that have been empty for a total of 26 years.
All were going to transformed into something or other but for various reasons – lack of cash, planning problems, collapsed deals or perhaps a lack of political will – they were locked up and abandoned to the pigeons.
In the rush to regenerate, council officers and politicians of all stripes can be accused of paying too little attention to assets we already have.
"That is very true," says Stuart Bailey, chairman of Leicester Civic Society.
"The council has a habit of closing one facility before the new one is ready.
"The Haymarket closed a year before Curve opened. The council closed City Gallery, in Granby Street, two to three years before the new one would have been built – now it's not going to happen."
Leaving a buildings idle isn't just a waste of space, it is also a drain on council resources.
The authority still has to pay business rates. Then there are security, insurance and maintenance costs.
Stuart wants to see the council take stock of its properties – used and empty – and develop a coherent strategy for making the most of them.
Buildings – some of them architectural gems – have been boarded up too quickly without any real idea of what to do with them, he argues.
Consequently, they have become expensive liabilities, difficult to sell or bring back into use.
It is a drum the civic society chairman has been banging for years. Finally, he believes, it is being heard. The new mayor does appear to be listening.
John Mugglestone – he who promised the Haymarket would not be allowed to stand idle for long – agrees the council has to look at the bigger picture.
Not enough attention was paid to the Haymarket's future when Curve was in development, he accepts. Even so, it should not have been left empty all this time.
He says he had talks with IMG and other parties vaguely interested in buying the lease before Labour regained control of the council in May 2007.
One "paltry" offer was made but it became clear there were no "real takers".
John, now retired, says he was not convinced by the idea of converting it into a youth centre. That scheme had the expediency of getting the building occupied but it wasn't necessarily the best use of it.
The council would have been better, he says, to have cashed in on a couple of its more saleable properties elsewhere and used the profits to turn the Haymarket into a library, performance space or gallery.
John is sceptical that a buyer can be found for the Haymarket in the current climate.
"If the council can sell it then best of luck. I can't see it happening," he says.
"I still think they would be better selling something else and using the money to revitalise the building."
The mayor refuses to be drawn into a debate about mistakes that may or may not have been made in the past.
The regeneration of Leicester through signature statement new builds such as Curve and Highcross has been profoundly positive, says Sir Peter.
Now, though, it is time to take stock and focus attention on bringing our boarded-up dead zones back into use.
When the mayor came into power he promised a full review of the council's property portfolio and pledged to bring buildings back into use.
It was a commitment born of conviction and necessity.
Sir Peter has set his face against moving the authority into a "prestige" HQ even if the crumbling New Walk Centre has to be demolished.
The need to identify alternative accommodation, already a priority, became even more pressing when it was announced neighbouring Marlborough House was also structurally unsound and hundreds of staff would have to relocate.
Having thousands of square feet of empty buildings on the books isn't just undesirable, it's unsustainable.
Steps are already being taken to bring some of Leicester's best but hard-to-let buildings back into use, says Sir Peter.
Leicester Heritage Partnership – a body set up by the mayor to bring together groups and individuals with an interest in preserving and enhancing the city's historic environment – held its inaugural meeting at the end of July.
Sir Peter says he is looking at options for opening up the castle and wants to see the saga of Braunstone Hall resolved as soon as possible.
"We must come to a conclusion on that in the next few months," he says.
"Braunstone Hall is a special place that deserves to be brought back into use.
"Obviously, we've got to explore any expression of interest to do that."
A review of the council's property portfolio is under way.
Sir Peter says the council has to consider what it has, what it needs, how empty buildings can be made productive and, crucially, how they can become catalysts for further development and economic renewal.
That means being bold, he believes. If the council can't do anything with a building, it needs find to someone who can.
That might be through a partnership or by putting the property up for sale.
"We need to think creatively," says Sir Peter. "We have to be active and not just hope something turns up."
Getting investors is not going to be easy. The council could not offload the Haymarket during the heady years of the building boom. So what chance is there now?
"For the right buyer it would be attractive," says Sir Peter.
"It needs someone with imagination but it is an incredible place in the heart of the city."
The recently announced refurbishment of the Charnwood Hosiery building, in Rutland Street, is testament to what can be achieved, he says.
The former factory will be turned into workspaces for creative businesses using £1.1 million of European Union and council money.
"That is a good example of the council using its property sensibly as a way of promoting regeneration," says Sir Peter.
"It is something we have to do more of."