Marina: What future?

THE future of Lowestoft's Marina Theatre was back in the balance this week as a political row erupted about the venue.

A five-month search for a new organisation to take over the day-to-day control of the council-run building has proved fruitless.

And now, plans are being drawn up that could see the Marina no longer being advertised as a 'theatre' – thereby opening up the option of it becoming an 'entertainments/leisure venue' instead.

Waveney District Council is preparing to rerun the lengthy procurement process.

And tenders are again to be sought from organisations willing to take on the 750-seat Edwardian theatre.

But, as The Journal went to press last night, any decision on its future looked set to be delayed further as the opposition Labour group on the council vowed to call in Waveney cabinet's decision.

The move comes after 'recommended options' for the future of the Marina were approved at a private meeting of the cabinet last week.

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Days later, the council inadvertently leaked its own, confidential, decision by placing recommendations from its report, Future Operation of the Marina Theatre, on its website where everyone could view them.

On seeing this, the Labour group said it would be calling in the decision - a move that later received cross-party support.

'There simply has not been enough information made available to both the public and councillors about this decision,' Pakefield councillor Peter Byatt said. 'There's a massive public interest and value in the Marina Theatre and we don't necessarily think that all the best options on what is an asset to the whole of Waveney have been explored.'

Last year, the future of the theatre looked bleak when managers were forced to cut the number of shows on offer.

But hopes were raised in the summer when the council sought alternative ways of operating the theatre.

The formation of a new trust to run the venue was among the options mooted but, although a search for a new operator was launched in May and several groups expressed an interest, the project has proved 'disappointing', according to the council.

Stephen Ardley, Waveney's portfolio holder for healthy and inclusive communities, said: 'The outcome of the procurement exercise that sought to find an alternative management organisation for the Marina Theatre was disappointing.

'After a thorough evaluation and corporate risk assessment the cabinet has decided not to select a bidder under this contract as no bidder was able to meet the council's criteria. Consequently, members considered and debated different options...As a result, a further recommendation was put to cabinet that the procurement process for the Marina Theatre be re-advertised on a basis that includes the potential for a freehold option with a flexible approach to the operation and with preference given to an entertainments/leisure venue.

'Under this recommendation, Waveney recognises the importance of a theatre/leisure/entertainment venue being retained where possible, so priority will be given to expressions of interest from parties that retain this functionality.'

He added: 'It is important to capture as many options as possible to secure the future of the venue, hence the need to extend to the potential for freehold disposal should the council receive a proposal it accepts, yet requires freehold status - in order to levy finance against the asset for investment, for example.'

Staff at the Marina Theatre, whose jobs could be at risk if the freehold is disposed of, were unable to comment this week.

However, Peter Wilson, chairman of the Friends Of The Marina Theatre, who is one of a few people in the town to have actively campaigned to save the theatre from demolition in the mid 1980's, told The Journal: 'We campaigned all those years ago to save the theatre and we will do that again - we can't afford to waste the Marina.'

Speaking about the new tender process, Mr Ardley said: 'There is potential for resulting tenders to be broad in mix and offer - for example, a combination of conference, live music, theatre, entertainment, leisure - and it was therefore decided that the results of this subsequent tendering exercise would be reported to a future meeting of the Community Safety, Health and Well-being Scrutiny Sub-Committee, prior to formal consideration by the cabinet.

'This will ensure that the results of the re-tendering exercise are fully scrutinised by members before forming recommendations to be presented to cabinet in the New Year. Waveney welcomes residents' opinions on the running of the Theatre and invites Journal readers to tell the council what they would like to see at the Marina Theatre - what would you do?

'These decisions are currently subject to call in, which expires on November 22.'

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