Delivered by John Caldwell, Chair of The Civic Group

28th April 2014


Back in 2010, Wyre Forest District Council finally implemented an often talked about plan to consolidate all their officers into a planned new headquarters. This meant that all the buildings around the area they owned would be disposed of. This included the Civic Centre site in Stourport, which is home to The Civic Hall.


Naturally local groups who had a connection to the building were not happy, and protests and petitions were raised. Through a series of meetings and focus groups the district council made an offer to replace the building with a new facility, but the suggestions submitted fell short of what was required by these groups. It was at this point that the possibility of transferring the asset into community hands on favourable terms was first discussed using existing and soon to be revisited Community Asset Transfer strategies.


A straightforward tendered management contract was ruled out due to the cost of implementing such agreements, and that the council would still own the building – something that was against their planned outcome of asset disposal.


The Community Asset Transfer process allows the local authority to dispose of the property and transfer the ownership to community groups at less than market value. In short it helps cuts costs for the local authority whilst providing them a means local community groups grow and develop and have a positive impact on the local area.


From the focus groups the council held, a small core group of people emerged, with the plan to take the process forward to Community Asset Transfer. They would later become The Civic Group.


In September 2013 it was announced we had succeeded.


For us there were many challenges we faced, but they can be broadly placed into two main categories. Those we faced because of who we are and those because of who we were dealing with.


The challenges we faced because of who we are will be similar to those faced by many groups who will be looking undertake this type of project.


Loosely speaking we are all amateurs when it comes to venue management.


Each of us was drawn to the project from a similar background and for similar reasons. We had all performed in or worked on amateur productions at the venue and loved it for what it was, so much so that we didn’t want it to close.


None of us had any experience of running a venue.


None of us had any experience in running a programme of events. The most any of us had ever done was perform in or, perhaps, direct amateur productions.


To say that the learning curve was steep is an understatement.


And it doesn’t stop.


We went from being a loose group of mainly strangers to forming a limited company, and a charity; Writing business cases, conducting market research; reading legislation and guidance publications and negotiating to take over the building on favourable terms to help prove the viability of the business case.


There is a lot to “get your head around”.


New terminology, new concepts……


If you don’t have a strong, determined and focused team involved, life will be pretty hard.


Luckily I am part of an amazing team.


Early challenges include ensuring you have a clear purpose and objective. It’s all too easy to get distracted by new idea and external pressures so focus is key.


If you don’t know where you want to go, how will you know when you get there?


The last challenge “from our side” was the fact that we were very much making this up as we went. There is no real guidebook, no template to follow. There isn’t a “Theatre Management for Dummies” book.


Think about when you took over managing your venue. Think about its reputation and local presence – we didn’t have that.


Think about your entire contact book and you mailing list – nope not us.


Media and marketing presence – nothing.


Our unofficial motto is Beg, Borrow and Salvage



It’s  a philosophy that has worked very well so far.



We had no budget. Our very first event was funded by a donation of £30 by one of our members and we sold tea and cake at an open day at the venue. The profits from that event went towards bringing in our first professional show, a subsidised touring production under the Live and Local rural touring scheme.


We’ve had to build it from there, and that has been the biggest challenge. Taking an unloved, underused building and trying to change the perceptions of the wider community, and we’ve still got a way to go. Its time consuming and saps your energy, but it’s worth it at every step.


The building has gone from having 30 bookings a year to near 300 last year. In 2013 over 12,000 people paid to see a show at the hall, and nearly 5,000 came in for free events.


That’s what we as a community have been empowered to do.


In terms of external challenges and things beyond our control they are, unfortunately, all connected to the local authorities.


Dealing with one local authority can be a test in itself, but once we proved our approach could work, we attracted the attention of the other two local authorities who saw an opportunity to usefully occupy the office building on the remainder of the site. In some ways this has been a blessing, as the increase in footfall to the site, combined with the opportunities to work more closely with those services relocating to the site, is fantastic.


However, this then meant negotiating with three levels of local authority, each with their own separate timescales and flexibility, whilst all looking to reduce expenditure due to cuts.


Negotiating with one local authority is simple enough once you know each other’s core objectives. Throw two more in, and suddenly its very complex. Communication is key, lots of it and often. You also have to know each of the local plans – how you fit into it and how you can work within it. Negotiations will be easier if you do.


I want to briefly touch on the challenge presented by politics, or more specifically politicians. We’ve been luckily in many respects that we’ve had good, cross party support throughout the project and a political will to succeed. At times its made progress easier, but then there are the times when its backfired massively.


With local elections every year, and a general election around the corner, it’s all too easy for local politicians to get a little too excited and say something that could be misinterpreted. When these issues occur the requirement to act professionally must override the need for personal comment or action.


Politicians will tell you, and anyone else that listens, they support you, however, the best support a local politician can give you is to pay for a ticket and put their bum on a seat, not words in a council chamber.


I can count on one hand, how many of the 42 elected DISTRICT Councillors have actually paid for a seat at one of our shows.


The last external challenge I would like to speak about is perhaps the most significant and unfortunately may never be fully resolved.


The same local authority who have given us the opportunity to rescue the venue, have also been our biggest obstacle at times.


Please do not misunderstand me, the fact that they have listened to us, and allowed us the chance to prove we could do this, should not be underestimated, and should be applauded.



They could have simply sold the building and walked away, putting the capital receipt from the buildings disposal into paying for its new ten million pound HQ.


We are grateful that they gave us a chance, however that was mainly because the political will was there.


Highlights include regular moving goalposts, withholding information, deliberate misinformation and the addition of worrying conditions or strings to an agreement which was not supposed to have impositions.


The public have been told that the building was shut, they’ve tried to cancel our bookings, tried to claw back money we have been publically promised for our refurbishment, shut off the heating and hot water, and tried to attach a condition on the transfer that would allow them to use the venue an unlimited amount of times at no cost, with no event restrictions.


This is a not recent development. It’s been like this from the start. One of the first things we were asked to do was prove the viability of our business case. To do this properly we needed certain information which could only be obtained from the local authority. Costs of the running the venue, utilities, rates and discounts, existing service level agreements and contracts and such. All of which were returned with the vaguest answers, not providing a fully transparent picture, making obtaining accurate proof and evidence circumspect.


I’m not raising this challenge out of a desire to embarrass the local authority, and it’s not sour grapes. I was asked to talk about challenges others may face if they go down this route.


I’m raising it as it could be a significant obstacle, and one I believe will face most people undertaking a Community Asset Transfer. Don’t forget we had those issues despite having “widespread” political support.


In summary, Community Asset Transfer is a fantastic tool to empower communities.


Is it easy? – no
Is it worth is – Yes!!