Plans to sell a building used and owned by the Hackney Empire in order to pay back its spiralling deficit were greeted with anger by local residents at a stormy public meeting last night.
Many of its supporters said they were ‘shocked’ by the announcement that the building at 117 Wilton Way will be sold off in a multi-million pound deal with developers the Thornsett Group to build affordable housing. Speakers heckled the panel of theatre and Arts Council officials.
Last night’s meeting was postponed from one scheduled last month because of protests surrounding the proposed development. The plans were finally given the go ahead by Hackney planning committee on Wednesday night.
Despite heralding the plans as a “new era” for the Hackney Empire, the overriding feeling among residents was disappointment and anger.
Speakers at the meeting said they were dismayed to hear that the Sixties office block, currently used by the theatre, would be sold off. Many asked why they had not been called to a meeting before the decision had been taken, to discuss alternatives.
There was a heated atmosphere as questions were fired at the panel by the 100-strong audience. The panel, which included Moira Sinclair, London Executive Director at the Arts Council and Clarie Middleton, interim Chief Executive at the Empire, struggled to make themselves heard over heckling.
Roland Muldoon, former artistic director and chief executive of the Hackney Empire asked the board to reconsider “the atrocious decision to sell the land”.
Jonathon Maywright, a Hackney resident of 40 years, said: “Having listened to the opinion of the panel here tonight I am not convinced that the forecasted developments will aid the borough in any way and by no means are they satisfactory. What essentially should have been a public consultation turned into a series of announcements on which we had no influence. Several other alternatives were suggested however no promises were made to listen.”
Hackney resident and solicitor Michael Seaford said: “I am shocked to hear that contracts have been exchanged, I thought this meeting was to be a consultancy.”
Stuart Shanks, head of finance at the Empire defended the deal, saying: “The deal is a long term investment that secures the immediate future of one of the Empire’s main assets.”
There was further cries of dismay when it was announced that the venue would continue with its plans to remain close for almost nine months this year; 43 members of staff have been made redundant. James Cartwright, another local resident said: “If you, the Board, have plans to remarket the failing Empire … then what sense does it make to let the product disappear for almost 9 months? Surely it should remain at the forefront of the community as it has done.”
Figures show that since the Empire’s re-opening several years ago after a £20m refurbishment, its deficit has increased significantly, now totalling £1,158,460. The venue faces problems not only with accumulated debt but also an ongoing operating loss with attendance at a low. Residents were told that there has been a conscious decision to “reduce significantly the number of main stage productions”, in a bid to tackle the debts.
The board and staff hope the sale will pay off the debt, ensuring the Empire’s future and will provide a ‘Bullion Room’ – a new flexible creative learning and participation space.
Additional reporting by Aron Nedd