Oldham Council u-turns on new theatre after plans for Oldham Coliseum revealed

Reporter: Charlotte Hall, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 08 July 2024

A decision to save the beloved Oldham Coliseum was made weeks ago.

Plans to ditch the building of a new home for the theatre – and instead use the money to save the current building – have only now been announced because of election rules, the town’s council boss has said.

Labour town hall leader Arooj Shah said the U-turn had already been decided upon, but ‘purdah’ stopped the news being made public.

During the pre-election period, immediately before voters go to the polls, governments – and local councils – must follow certain restrictions in the announcements they make.

Bosses have to be cautious about announcing decisions that could have an impact on campaigning.

Yesterday (Monday), it was revealed proposals for a new, £24.5m arts and culture venue in Oldham town centre had been scrapped.

Those plans were drawn up after Oldham Coliseum was forced to close last year after Arts Council England withdrew its funding.

An initial design was abandoned when its projected price doubled.

The new plans were for a smaller ‘arts and and culture venue without a producing theatre, which ‘no one wanted’, actor and campaigner Julie Hesmondhalgh said.

It was yesterday revealed that some of that £24.5m will go towards transforming the old venue.

It is set to reopen by panto season next year.

The £10m refurbishment will be paid for with £6m from the Towns Fund – government money for ‘levelling up’ projects, set up by the old Conservative administration – and £4m from the town hall’s ‘Town Centre Regeneration’ pot.

It has not been revealed what will be done with the remaining £14.5m originally planned for the new venue.

“The most difficult thing has been having to contain it for so long because of the elections – the Parliamentary rules don’t allow you to do this [make the announcement],” council leader Arooj Shah said.

A council spokesperson said: “Plans for the new theatre were well advanced but there was seemingly little support for the new venue among the general public.

"What makes sense for everyone is a return to a refurbished and improved Fairbottom Street Theatre and for the council to use our investment differently.”

Explaining that the venue had ‘a lot of quirks and issues’ that need to be addressed, they added: “The building isn’t perfect but the biggest difference is the heritage, the history of more than 100 years of theatre in this building which people have told us they respect, they love, and they want us to protect.”

Before the new plans were submitted to Oldham’s planning portal, the council came under significant public pressure.

The Save the Coliseum campaign, spearheaded by Coronation Street actor Hesmondhalgh and screenwriter Ian Kershaw, argued the plans would mean ‘downsizing’ the auditorium and no longer operating as a producing house – which is what made the Coliseum ‘unique’.

“Over time, because of austerity, Brexit and everything costing more, the plans were downsized to this small arts centre, which nobody wanted,” Hesmondhalgh told the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

“But the board were determined to build it because everyone thought Fairbottom Street was off the table because of a false narrative about the building being ‘not fit for purpose’.”

“There’s not a single struggling post-industrial town in this country that’s going to say ‘let’s build a producing theatre’.

"So if you’ve got it, you’ve got to keep it.”

Coun Shah said: “We’re using some of our regeneration money, which feels like absolutely the right thing to do.

"Previously, the council’s role in the Oldham Coliseum Theatre has just been the landlord.

"Our direction is going to be more than a landlord, but as a joint partner in the arts and culture sector.”

Do you have a story for us? Want to tell us about something going on in and around Oldham? Let us know by emailing news@oldham-chronicle.co.uk , calling our Oldham-based newsroom on 0161 633 2121 , tweeting us @oldhamchronicle or messaging us through our Facebook page. All contact will be treated in confidence.