Interview with Glenn Lester, Mayor of Southborough, recorded on Friday 8th April 2016
Q: Now a lot of strong feeling was evident about the Royal Victoria Hall because it is the first municipally funded theatre. It is more than 100 years old. There are lots of old pictures which connect us to the past about it. And there were several thousand people apparently who signed a petition saying they wanted to keep it. You had the consultation over Christmas. 287 Southborough residents responded, which doesn’t seem that many – it is only 2 per cent of the 12,000 residents, are you really confident that you have found out what most people in Southborough want by deciding to go ahead and demolish the old building?
A: I must admit, I am completely confident. Being involved with the designs of this building over the last 18 months or two years or even longer than that, the constraints of the existing building were so that it was almost impossible for us to economically redevelop that building and provide what we need. We’ve always known that we needed 300-350 seats in the theatre. To get new seating within the Victoria Hall box as it is with fold away seating – we may have also lost the balcony. So it wasn’t just about a head strong approach to having a new build, it was very much about ticking boxes and making sure that what we brought forward was going to provide future-proof services for Southborough into the future.
Q: But just looking at the building of the Royal Victoria Hall, now obviously some old buildings are structurally unsound or the wiring is prohibitively expensive to redo, but apparently the wiring was OK, the plumbing was dodgy but the wiring was OK, structurally the whole building was fine, it had in the past seated up to 400 people, why was that old building simply not adaptable?
A: We had one insurance claim and two or three incidents where people got their fingers trapped in the old seating. The old seating was very small and you are right you could get more seats in there. Our insurance company said to us look, I’m sorry but we can’t insure this seating any more, it’s too hazardous to young people and elderly people and with the new regulations coming forward with access routes and people being able to escape from buildings the Victoria Hall was also problematic. The building has no thermal insulation or thermal integrity to it either, so whatever we did – even if we had chosen to do Option 2 of the two options, it would have still meant an absolute fundamental change to what that building looked like. And if we had not done any of those things and we had just renovated the building as it was, we couldn’t have brought forward all the other improvements to Southborough as we wanted to.
Q: I can see that YOU are confident from looking at all the options in detail that the new build was the only option, but given those statistics – at least 3,000 people having signed the petition – their instinct is to try to preserve and adapt the old building – and your consultation with only 287 respondants – it was 63 per cent in favour of knocking it down but that was still only 181 people, what gives you the evidence that the silent majority – the thousands who didn’t come forward to say “start again” – actually exist?
A: We had an election this time last year in May and we the Conservative group stood on a new build manifesto. The Labour group stood on a retention manifesto. The Conservative group won a huge majority. That was the starting point, that was when we were starting to believe that we were working with the people of Southborough under a mandate to move this forward with a new building. Then we had our consultation, we had numerous opportunities for members of the public in Southborough and the surrounding areas to get involved. There was consultation at the library, there were numerous events there. We had events at the primary school. You’re right 315…
Q: I think it was 287 Southborough and High Brooms residents, because that was the figure you focussed on saying 63 per cent wanted the option of demolition.
A: I must admit one thing that surprised me. There are two anomalies. We had a petition with 10,000 signatures or thereabouts saying they wanted to retain the Victoria Hall. We had a consultation showing the options that were available to the people of Southborough. We went from a 10,000 signature petition to roughly 300 people locally getting involved with the consultation. If there had been such a strength of feeling that was shown in that original petition, why did those people not come forward at all the opportunities they had to participate in the consultation?
Q: Some of them would say that it involved several hours of their time on a Saturday over Christmas when they were doing Christmas shopping, is 2 per cent the average in a consultation on something this historic?
A: Well if someone stands on your doorstep and asks you to sign a petition and the option is “will you please sign my petition to save the Victoria Hall – they want to knock it down”, even I would have signed it to save it because I didn’t have a full picture of the information. I think once the full information came forward and the people of Southborough and the surrounding areas could look online, could go to those consultations and see what was on offer and see how good the new designs and what we were going to bring forward to the people of Southborough, I think a lot of them chose to think, you know, I think they have got this in hand and we’re quite happy with it.
Q: But the options also that you gave at the consultation was either knock all of it down or knock about 1/3 of it down because Option 2 was to take the balcony down and the area off the back and to make it a smaller theatre, so many of the people who wanted the original theatre refurbished, actually wanted neither option. Perhaps that was another reason why they didn’t engage?
A: It may have been. But they did not come to the consultation and make that statement. Nobody came – and we may have had a few replies to that element – but very few people came and participated who actually had that point of view. And I think we’ve also got to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just about what people desire – and obviously having an older building is a desirable thing to have – it’s got to be financially viable, it’s got to be future-proofed, it’s got to work for this community for the next 50 years. We’re not going to get this opportunity again. It’s got to be able to provide the facilities and things that we woefully lack.
Q: So you are saying that you looked at the details of it, so just sum up again, why was it that this hall, you said the seating had to be replaced – you are saying that any modern seating meeting current regulations would have been too few seats to fit in that hall – is that the essence of it?
A: The essence of it was that the existing building box was so restrictive that to make it financially viable for people to put on theatre productions within the existing box with modern standards, modern accessibility for less able people, all of those things, the fact that there’s no sound insulation within the building, the fact that there’s no heat insulation in the building, all of those things ticked the boxes up and up and up to favour financially and the common sense approach of replacing it.
Q: And obviously people have different opinions, sometimes different architects have different opinions, how widely did you consult experts on those sort of issues? OK, Glenn says it, but who did he speak to that gives him the justification for saying you couldn’t put in an extra exit for disabled access and that sort of thing?
A: Of course, all these things can be done if there is a will to do them. But it is about having a look at the broad brush approach at the whole development. Yes, you could perhaps put an extra doorway in. Yes, you could squeeze the seats maybe, but the trouble is we wanted a hall and a facility that was going to be open to all. We want something that’s going to provide a good theatre, but we also want a hall that can have a young person’s disco in it, we want somewhere that can have a tea party in it or a party or old age pensioners to have an afternoon dance, so we need a facility that’s going to be flexible and available to all.
Q: Some cynical people will say: you start off with a hall that seats 300 people, or has done in the past, then at the end of this project (where you have had a windfall effectively from selling off some of your playing fields that’s funded this new development) you end up with another hall that seats about 300 people, but in a slightly different position, twisted round and further off the road, is that really the right way to spend this windfall, is it just the building companies that are going to benefit?
A: No. It’s the people of Southborough that are going to benefit because we are going to end up with brand new facilities providing theatre, entertainment, facilties for all in that hall that can be used for multiple purposes. We’ve got new council offices, we’ve got a new library, with new facilities – we will end up with a new central heart to Southborough. The football club ends up with a new pavilion. We end up with a new doctor’s facility as well on that site, which at the moment is woefully inadequate, we needed Southborough to grow a heart and beat again as an independent community and that’s what we want.