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Can our theatres be considered as ‘community theatres’ and be listed as Assets of Community Value? Mhora Samuel discusses the significance of this question.

Image of dancers on the streets of London
An Ovalhouse dance group which engaged in pop-up performances in the Kennington area of London

Localism has been a driving force of the coalition government for the last four years. Through localism the role of communities and their influence on decision-making, and ownership and management of community assets, has changed. Many of these changes were enshrined in the Localism Act passed in 2011 and brought into force in 2012.

They included new community rights: the ‘Community Right to Challenge’, ‘Community Right to Bid’ and Neighbourhood Planning. Community rights mean that theatres can be listed as ‘Assets of Community Value’. They then provide new resources for communities to participate in decision-making and take on the ownership of local assets which further the social wellbeing or social interests of their local community. By developing neighbourhood plans local people now have more opportunities to set out their priorities and make the case for "the provision, improvement, replacement, operation or maintenance of infrastructure" through their council’s Community Infrastructure Levy. If a theatre participates in this process not only does it become an active participant in local civic life, it is able potentially to access valuable investment.

While artists and theatre companies working in the field of arts development, and voluntary and community arts, along with arts funding partners, are committed to developing partnerships and their work with local communities, there is still very little awareness of the community rights agenda.

All theatres should be able to demonstrate their cultural value, but can they articulate their social and community value?

Local authorities continue to be major players at a local level. As pressure on local authority budgets increases, and they re-examine their role in the provision of cultural and arts services, we are starting to see a sea change in the way communities are involved in providing and running local arts provision and theatres. Only recently the future of the Brewhouse Theatre was secured after Taunton Deane Borough Council agreed a five-year lease with the Taunton Theatre Association, a local community group. The venue, with the support of the Mackintosh Foundation, is due to reopen this month, running a mixed programme of professional and amateur productions.

Local authorities also have an important role to play in the community rights agenda. They hold the lists of Assets of Community Value and deliver the 'Local Plan' to which neighbourhood plans must comply. They have an active role in developing bids to both the Local Growth Fund and the European Regional Development Fund as they are a conduit to their Local Enterprise Partnerships. They also have a duty to help neighbourhoods develop their neighbourhood plans and manage the referenda on those plans. And they manage the Community Infrastructure Levy. So while local authorities might cut direct funding to their community theatres, it remains important to continue to have a positive, working relationship with them.

As ever, when establishing strategic priorities for funding and investment, a theatre needs to be able to demonstrate how it is delivering value. An Asset of Community Value is defined by how it furthers the social wellbeing or social interests of its local community. All theatres and buildings used for staged performances could be listed as Assets of Community Value, but could they be described as community theatres? All theatres should be able to demonstrate their cultural value, but can they articulate their social and community value? Are theatres doing enough to put themselves at the heart of civic and community life, positioning themselves to ‘win friends and influence people’ in their neighbourhoods, and so attract investment and public support?

We think listing theatres as Assets of Community Value is a good thing. Defining the community value of a theatre is also a good thing. At our conference later this month we will be looking at how far theatres are working with their communities and harnessing these initiatives and how the community rights agenda could help deliver a sustainable future for our theatres in our communities.

Theatres Trust annual conference

The annual conference of the Theatres Trust is to be held on 28 April at the City Varieties Music Hall in Leeds. It will be considering what makes a community theatre, what relationships it has with its local community and how a theatre can best place itself as a resource for its community. Highlights include:

  • Peter Stark, Chairman of Voluntary Arts, to open the conference.
  • Stephen Williams MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, on the listing of new Assets of Community Value.
  • Sir Peter Bazalgette on the investment Arts Council England is making through its national portfolio organisations (NPOs), Grants for the Arts, strategic funds and the National Lottery.
  • Ben Greener, Heritage Lottery Fund, on the new Heritage Enterprise programme.
  • John Caldwell, chair of the Civic Group, on Community Asset Transfer of the Stourport Civic Centre in Stourport-on-Severn.
  • Deborah Bestwick, Director of the Ovalhouse, London.
  • Plus numerous case studies from theatres run by charities, amateur and voluntary groups, NPOs and the education sector; and those funded through endowment or income from commercial assets and community shares.

Mhora Samuel is Director of the Theatres Trust.

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