#Theatre4Exeter | An ‘iconic’ building on site of Bus Station

I have been in long-term correspondence over the Exeter City Council’s ‘iconic’ building on the site of the Bus and Coach Station…here’s the latest instalment.

I hope that these discussion help you realise that the decision over the future direction of the Bus & Coach Station development site is much more considered than many people realise.

If you have been following the story closely, you will know that the option to develop the site was awarded to Land Securities and Crown Estate back 2010.

Under the deal,  Land Securities would  draw up proposals for the site  and would be granted a long- term lease by the Council, which  would still own the freehold.

The developer would then pay  for the redevelopment of the site  and lease units to retailers.  Land Securities will now draw  up a feasibility plan and the Council will have the final say  on any proposals.

SEE: Land Securities seal Exeter bus station deal (WMN, 17 March 2014)

Of course this was under the previous LD administration when Leader Adrian Fullam had a letter in the E&E City centre theatre idea is unrealistic (15 March 2010).

Most of his comments then are still valid now.

As a consequence of the recent article in the E&E (“New bus station site plans are due within weeks” 13 June 2015), you highlight 4 points

1) The plans are expected to include a multi-screen cinema
As Adrian pointed out back in 2010, Land Securities are “Land Securities is a commercial company”. The same is true of their successors on the project, TIAA Henderson Real Estate.

They are now responsible for regenerating the current Bus & Coach Station site – they are investing £70m in the project – of course, they will be expecting to make a  substantial return.

The terms of their option gives them full control (subject to the usual planning restrictions) to make best use of that land as they see fit.

As to whether a multiplex is finally delivered on the emerging site is simply a matter of economics.

Each and every one of the 3 multi-screen cinemas operates on a commercial basis – if not, they would close down.

I am assuming that TH Real Estate and Crown Estate have had the relevant conversations with a cinema chain and/or independent and reckon they can get a financial return on delivering a new cinema on this site.

2) It is understood that a new swimming pool is needed to replace the Pyramids.
To be clear the leisure complex is going to much more than a swimming pool, it will have gym and other facilities – more details from Exeter Active, and you see outline details of the building design on Gale and Snowden’s Swim4Exeter page.

Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]
Initial design drawing [Gale and Snowden]

As it stands, the research and business case shows that the new leisure complex will NOT be an Olympic-sized pool. I’ve tried swimming in Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh and it really is daunting.

I am really exciting that this ‘iconic’ building can be built to PassivHaus standards.

I for one would be seriously worried if the new leisure centre were located at one of the suggested alternatives – Arena Park. Many bus route have been threatened by withdrawal of services and I fear that this situation will only get worse in the future.

I want a facility that is easily accessible to all – not just those that can rely on private car use.

I haven’t got the actual usage details of Riverside to hand, but a report to Scrutiny – Economy in January 2014 reported an INCREASE of 44,000 customers at Riverside Leisure Centre in comparison to year one, and a significant rise at the Pyramids Swimming Centre with an increase of 29,000.

I haven’t seen the documents that outline the projected use of the new complex of 500k to 1m (New Exeter swimming pool will ‘attract a million visitors a year’, council claims E&E 19 March 2015), but let’s remember we are talking about visits to the gym and other facilities as well as swimmers.

And to put that in to some perspective – if Theatre Royal Plymouth were open to provide 9 performance a week, there would be an audience of some 1500 (in the 2 venues) per performance, that’s 13,000 each week and totaling 702,000.

But I would once more reiterate that each visitor to Exeter’s Leisure Complex would bring in an income to the Council.

Currently, TRP is a National Portfolio Organisation [NPO] of Arts Council England [ACE] and receives funding to the tune of £1,185,500 – this is committed for the next 3 years. Note I use the phrase committed, rather than guaranteed, as ACE have have stated this could be reviewed if they themselves receive cuts in Government funding.

For your information, the following Exeter-based Theatre Companies receive annual NPO funding from ACE:
Bikeshed – £75k
Northcott – 125k
Alibi – £241k
Kaleider – £110k
and Exeter Phoenix is an NPO for Combined Arts – £125k

As I’ve mentioned in previous correspondence, I think that a new theatre venture in Exeter would be very unlikely to attract such significant funding from ACE.

In addition to susbisdy from ACE,  TRP currently enjoys revenue grant support of £665,000 from Plymouth City Council. The freehold of the Theatre Royal Plymouth (built in 1982) is owned by PCC and let to the operator at a peppercorn rent.

The reality is that a new theatre would cost residents for each and every seat sold.

As a city cllr, I am committed to retaining as much of the current green open space as possible, and any building on the site of Belmont Park would reduce the capacity available for events such as Exeter Respect.

The amphitheatre is an open space within the new development that I would imagine would be used for ad hoc events and informal gatherings (even a new location for the Farmers’ Market?) – rather in the way that Coventry’s Millenium Square is used – rather than for formal money-making initiatives.

3) No reference is made to building a much-needed theatre
I think that in my previous thoughts I have taken issue with this view – the theatre is desired but there is no NEED.

I will admit that’s my view – but with over 5 years of active doorstep work within Cowick, I can honestly say the issue of city centre theatre has been raised with me ONCE. I can take you to the resident, it was so memorable.

I see constant letters from the same people regularly appearing in the E&E expressing their desire, I understand the economic benefits if a city centre theatre, I want “the arts and culture an economic driver of the growth of the city”.

It’s just my view of theatre differs from yours. That’s why I do back the desire of the Theatre For Exeter Development Group to carry out a full feasibility study for the project.  What I’m not prepared to so is fully fund that study – and I believe the T4E Development Group aren’t expecting the City Council to do so.

I would be willing to place a bet – that the feasibility study would find that the financial case for a 1200 seat theatre capable to presenting Number One tours (those seen at TRP) will not stack up.

And I’m willing to place a second one – that a 800-900 seater theatre would be financially viable.

What do I do then?

Ignore the study and plump for the unsustainable venue you want, or the one that we can afford and support?

At the meeting of Exeter Civic Society where the T4E Development Group came into being, there were many who mourned the loss of the resident Artistic Director and repertory nature of the programme at the Northcott.

I have high hopes that the appointment of Paul Jepson up on the hill will start to address these issues – and I feel that his plans will be much more than “developing local production in co-operation with Exeter University”.

You also make mention of parking at the University – there is NO shortage of car parking spaces, albeit a couple of minutes walk away from the theatre. There is also a useful bus service that runs the city centre (and to my home in Heavitree). It is certainly much more accessible to the city centre than Warwick Arts Centre is to Coventy.

The future of the current Pyramids site is still to be decided – I personally would like this to be a major music venue like the Academy chain seen around the country – but I fear I, too, will be disappointed!

You bring back the 1962 closure of the old Theatre Royal – there has been a replacement for this – the Northcott. That was the legacy I inherited when I joined the council in 2011 – I wish different decisions had been taken back then, but they weren’t. We have to progress from where we are now,

Funding cannot be redirected from the ‘unnecessary” cinema no funding from ECC is  being directed there – as I explained earlier, that’s a commercial decision for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates.

The “unnecessary” amphitheatre is something I desire, and have fought hard to retain in the plans – once again there is NO ECC funding for this

Can I refer you to the Bus and Coach Station Development Principles from June 2012 which outlines desires for this sort of  space to be delivered.

4) The City Council must be aware that the small shops are steadily closing in the city
Yet I see thriving independent shops along Paris Street – The Real Food Store (declaration of interest, I’m a minor shareholder), Jelly, The Sandwich Shop, the gift shop (UPDATE: Hyde & Seek!) – and I for one want to see this independent network retained and grown once the new development comes to fruition.

As I say, I’ve given it a lot of thought, as have many of my colleagues.

I’m sure we’ll correspond more once the planning application for TH Real Estates and Crown Estates is lodged with ECC.

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