Review into governance of Oldham Coliseum finds culture of insufficient ‘constructive challenge’ and a lack of accountability

Reporter: Charlotte Green, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 08 September 2023

“So many people tried to give advice to the Coliseum, but this didn’t lead to change”:

A report looking into the reasons which led Oldham Coliseum Theatre to the brink of collapse has found a board culture of insufficient ‘constructive challenge’ and a lack of accountability.

The much-loved historic theatre closed its venue on Fairbottom Street in March earlier this year after nearly 140 years producing shows in the town, despite a passionate campaign backed by residents and prominent northern actors to save it.

A public meeting at the theatre in February organised by the performance union Equity saw 400 people turn out to support the Oldham venue – with Maxine Peake, Paul Hilton, Julie Hesmondhalgh, John Henshaw and Christopher Biggins giving public support to keep it afloat for future generations.

The closure on March 31 resulted in 70 redundancies of staff and the Coliseum being left without a physical home, while plans for a new venue in the town centre’s ‘Cultural Quarter’ will not be completed until 2026.

Arts Council England (ACE) decided last November to drop the Coliseum from its funding portfolio for the next three years after the body deemed it ‘high risk’, raising concerns about its’ financial management, leadership and governance.

The Arts Council would not comment publicly on what specific issues had been affecting the theatre, but a spokesperson said: “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 which we assessed to be such a high risk.”

In March a new seven-strong board was appointed for Oldham Coliseum Theatre Ltd, headed up by new Chair of Trustees Duncan Craig. 

The board commissioned local infrastructure organisation Action Together to examine the governance of the theatre as it was ‘facing a critical juncture in its history where it closed the doors to its theatre, made its staff redundant, and was near the point of insolvency’.

The review, which covers the past five years, was conducted by Action Together’s CEO, Liz Windsor-Welsh, with the aim to give ‘clarity of what transpired’ to the new board and audiences, Mr Craig said, and to ‘help us better understand how the organisation got to the point of collapse’.

It also looked at a number of documents, including a governance report carried out in February last year by thiNKnow Ltd, as well as carrying out ‘semi-structured’ interviews with people involved with the Coliseum, the council, and ACE.

Ms Windsor-Welsh says the review acknowledges that board members were all volunteers who had provided their time for ‘free and in good faith’. 

However, she concludes that the board had not refreshed its membership, provided sufficient training or sought sufficient technical advice to address ‘skills and experience gaps’.

Interviewees for the report had said that the board ‘rarely’ addressed the ‘significant governance and strategic issues’, and key information that would enable it to make effective decisions and appropriate challenges was not always produced or shared. 

“Oldham Coliseum Theatre’s (OCT) processes to manage risk were not robust enough,” the new document states. 

Plans for the new Coliseum Theatre inside the former Post Office and Quaker Meeting House on Union Street. Image courtesy of Oldham Council

“The interviews highlighted that OCT had been on the Arts Council risk register for some time due to its fragile financial and operating model, and this had been shared with OCT on a number of occasions.

"There is little evidence that this risk was mitigated.”

The Governance Report 2022 describes the experiences of people seeing the board in action: “We witnessed many occasions when there were questions that should have been asked which were missed or where information was not provided to trustees, and they did not seek it.”

One of the interviewees stated: “So many people tried to give advice to the Coliseum, but this didn’t lead to change.”  

“There was insufficient accountability between the governance and operational functions which affected their ability to identify, then address change that was required,” the report adds.

“The culture and practices within the board led to insufficient constructive challenge or relevant questioning.

“Adequate information was not being produced for the trustees to have the ability to assure the effective running and sustainability of the charity, and the trustees had not put in place clear expectations on the key management and performance information required to fulfil their roles.

“The Coliseum’s reluctance to engage wholeheartedly in the Partnership’s shared vision and subsequent business and transition planning processes was a significant factor in their inability to secure the confidence of key stakeholders and funders.”

Seven recommendations for action have been presented to the new board including that it should recruit members to reflect Oldham’s diverse communities, and those who have experience in theatre management and finance. 

Where there are gaps, the board is advised to bring in specialists with appropriate technical skills to advise them.

“The board must be clear on its commitment to work collaboratively with partners and lead on the further development of the vision and business planning processes to realise the potential of the new theatre space in Oldham,” the review states.

A memorandum of understanding should also be developed with Oldham Council, including ‘values and behaviours that both parties commit to use as a guide to their ongoing relationship’ and approach to partnership.  

Since the new board was appointed there had been a ‘sea change’ in the way that it was operating, interviewees for the review said.

Oldham Coliseum Theatre Ltd has been selected as the anchor tenant for the new £24m theatre building, which is planned as a redevelopment of the former Post Office and Quaker Meeting House on Union Street – for which a planning application was lodged by the council last month.

However, the governance report adds: “There is clearly still an uncertain future for OCT, and the financial position is a challenging one.

"OCT must be able to articulate a clear vision for its future within the new theatre space and ensure their organisational strategy, business plan, risk, and investment plans help it to achieve this. “

Mr Craig (pictured below) said: “I can say with absolute certainty and 100pc commitment that we will carry out all of the actions in the recommendations and I will report back to you on our progress.

“As a life-long theatre goer, being the Chair of Oldham Coliseum Theatre is a true honour and, along with my fellow Trustees, we will always ensure that we and the organisation complies with the Charity Governance Code, a tool endorsed by the Charity Commission, and carry out all our legal and moral obligations to act in the best interests of the charity, manage the charity’s resources responsibly, and action with reasonable care and skill – three key legal duties of any Trustee.”

A second report also commissioned by the new board examined the physical condition of the Fairbottom Street building – which is owned by Oldham council and had been leased to the Coliseum.

The theatre had been deemed ‘beyond its expected lifespan’ and a survey carried out in January uncovered ‘numerous’ urgent health safety works, the local authority previously confirmed.

On the building, ACE had said: “The Oldham Coliseum building, which is reaching its natural end, is owned by Oldham council and has never been part of our funding to the company.”

The building condition survey carried out by Plann, on behalf of the Oldham Coliseum Theatre Trust concludes that the council’s reports ‘appear to offer a fair and reasonable picture of the condition of the building’.

However, it says that most of a wide range of defects identified are ‘relatively minor maintenance issues’.

“Other than completing the recommended works to upgrade the fire doors, there is nothing we feel would fundamentally stop the building from reopening,” the assessment by Jack Tilbury states.

Issues that have persisted for ‘some time’ suggest that investment had not been available either from the council, as the landlord, or the Coliseum itself to fund maintenance and repair projects.

“The council’s report suggests that the capital investment required to keep the building open would have been £240,000 in this financial year, followed by a further £126,000 over the following two years,” the report states.

“This seems to be a reasonable assessment if the aim were to maintain the theatre indefinitely going forwards.

“In this situation, works would be required to the heating system, pipework, electrics, lifts, structure, and roofs over the medium term as many of these are nearing the end of their useful lifespan or require significant repair.”

However, Mr Tilbury says that the building could be reopened for a ‘limited period’ if only the most ‘urgent or statutory works’ were carried out, at a cost of around £150k.

Mr Craig said: “The conclusion of the Plann report is clear, the building on Fairbottom Street is not beyond repair and with investment could be used again.”

However, he added the answer of whether they will re-open the building was ‘no’, as they had been left in a financial position where they are ‘unable to undertake repairs, pay the bills, re-staff and maintain staffing of an organisation, and keep a theatre running’.

“Whilst we announced a financial investment from Oldham Council in July, those funds are classed in charities as ‘restricted funds’, which means that they can only be used for the specific purposes: to make theatre and creative arts,” Mr Craig said.

“Ensuring we learn from the past is vital and I will continue to share how we are doing that.”

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