Eastbourne theatre and playing fields set to be taken over by community groups

The Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne  (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-180907-104553008
The Royal Hippodrome Theatre in Eastbourne (Photo by Jon Rigby) SUS-180907-104553008

A council-owned theatre and playing field could soon belong to community groups instead, after plans were given the go ahead last night.

On Wednesday (June 5), Eastbourne Borough Council’s cabinet agreed to move ahead with plans to ‘dispose of’ of both the Royal Hippodrome Theatre and Langney Playing Fields, with ownership going two community organisations.

Speaking in favour of the proposals, council leader David Tutt said the move would secure the long term future of both council-owned assets.

Cllr Tutt said: “This isn’t us trying to get rid of assets, this is us responding to the community, over offers that have come forward to secure assets within the community for the future enjoyment of the people of Eastbourne.”

Although the proposals are still at an early stage, cabinet members heard the theatre would be ‘disposed of’ to the Royal Hippodrome Theatre Community Interest Company (CIC) – the same group which runs it now.

Langney Playing Fields, meanwhile, would be sold to the Acorns Charitable Trust (ACT), the majority owner of Langney Sports Club.

It is unclear how much the land would be sold for, although a valuation process is set to take place as part of the plans.

As part of this sale, Cllr Tutt said, the land would be registered with Fields In Trust – a national charity which aims to safeguard open green space and park land.

Cllr Tutt said: “This wasn’t something we were looking to offload. We were approached by Langney Sports Club, who wanted to ensure that the playing fields remain playing fields in perpetuity.

“They asked if it was possible to purchase the playing fields from the council with that in mind.

“That seems to me to be a wholly appropriate way of achieving something that both they and we want to ensure for future generations.”

Cllr Tutt said the Royal Hippodrome Theatre proposals would offer similar benefits.

According to council papers, the theatre is in need of repairs, the cost of which are said to be both ‘significant’ and an ‘unbudgeted liability’ for the council. In other words, it does not have the money.

In light of this the council has been trying to negotiate a fully repairing lease with the CIC, which would see the community organisation responsible for meeting the building’s repair and maintenance costs.

However, council papers say, the CIC has not been able to agree to this and would need the council to continue providing grant funding (around £35,000 per annum) to continue running in the way it is.

As an alternative, the council is now proposing the CIC could be given ownership of the property along with a one-off lump sum of money for future building maintenance and repairs, council papers say.

According to Cllr Tutt, this a transfer of ownership would open up new funding opportunities, which he said where not available to a council-owned building.

Cllr Tutt said: “The Hippodrome has had a chequered history, which I can remember going back at least two decades, where there have been the twin challenges of the actual running costs of the theatre and the capital required to maintain a historic building in the town.

“I personally believe that if we get this right, then it takes away what has been quite a big cloud – over the past 20 to 25 years – from over the future of the Hippodrome.”

However, the plans saw some concerns were raised by Cllr Tony Freebody, leader of the council’s Conservative group.

Cllr Freebody stressed the need for legal protections – such as covenants and overage clauses – to protect the assets in the future.

He said: “For me it is about the protections going forward. We need to make sure an asset like the Hippodrome isn’t left to go into ruin.

“I note from the papers the significant investment the CIC has already put into it, but there is always a risk to everything.  If you can mitigate those risks as much as possible, then that is fine.”

To ensure this was the case, he suggested the proposals go through the council’s scrutiny process.

Cllr Freebody also criticised the description of the process within council papers as a ‘disposal’, saying it gave off the wrong impression to the public.

The point was taken up by council officers, who suggested ‘transfer’ may be a less emotive term to use in future reports.

Further details of the proposals are expected to come forward in the coming months.