Chesterfield council is to make significant cutbacks at town’s Winding Wheel Theatre

Chesterfield Borough Council is to cut back a town centre theatre’s opening times, reduce its number of shows and staff levels and increase its hiring fees as it aims to host only cost-effective productions as part of savings to balance a forecast £4m council budget deficit.
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The Labour-controlled council’s cabinet approved the future cost-saving proposals for the Winding Wheel Theatre, on Holywell Street, Chesterfield, during a meeting on February 27 as part of the council’s overall financial plans to balance its budget for the 2024-25 financial year.

Cllr Kate Sarvent, Cabinet Member for Town Centres and Visitor Economy, said the changes will be aimed at transforming the service delivery and opportunities at the theatre to make sure it operates more commercially with savings to help balance the council’s budget.

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But opposition Liberal Democrat Group Leader, Cllr Paul Holmes, stated: “Today’s cabinet meeting of Chesterfield Borough Council revealed yet more bad news for Chesterfield’s hard-hit town centre.

The Winding Wheel Theatre, In ChesterfieldThe Winding Wheel Theatre, In Chesterfield
The Winding Wheel Theatre, In Chesterfield

“The council is to close the Winding Wheel for most of each week, only opening around the weekends.”

Chesterfield Borough Council’s saving proposals for the Winding Wheel identified an annual saving target of over £200,000 with the introduction of plans to increase its income and for it to operate more commercially.

The council has run the Grade 2 listed Winding Wheel building since 1987 and it boasts a main auditorium for 856 seated people that can increase to a thousand standing people and It also has a ballroom, a function room, four bars and three kitchens.

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A council officer stated the council promotes professional performances at the theatre including comedy, concerts, family shows, screenings and an annual pantomime and the venue can currently be hired between Mondays and Sundays and it is regarded as ‘well used’.

The theatre had a net operational cost of approximately £378,000 in 2023-24, according to the council, and in 2023, as many as 57 out of 66 hirers were charged the discounted community tariff and only nine were charged the more lucrative commercial tariff.

It was used on average approximately six hours per day and during 2022-23 there were 262 events with a total attendance of 83,000 people, according to the council.

A council spokesperson stated: “The main conclusion of the review was that many of the council promoted professional shows did not generate sufficient income for the council to cover all the costs of running the theatre.

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“Also, the income from hiring the venue to many of the hirers did not cover the costs of providing the theatre for the period of hire.”

With the aim of increasing income and reducing expenditure the council has agreed that for all new bookings from April 1 – the start of the financial year – the theatre will only proceed with a production if the anticipated income is sufficient to cover the costs of providing the venue.

The council hopes productions will be more profitable as it now plans to reduce and cease the number of costly productions which attract smaller audiences even though this means the overall number of productions is also expected to be reduced.

Current bookings until the end of July will remain in place but there will be a planned closure of the theatre in August for maintenance and it is anticipated there will be fewer shows in September and November before the expected Cinderella pantomime in December to be followed by a reduction from January 2025 with most events being presented during the weekends.

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Fees and charges for those hiring out the venue are also to be increased to help cover costs, according to the council.

The council says it will still offer community charges, which apply to social gatherings and non-profit making groups, in addition to offering its commercial charges for profit-making events and organisations.

It is anticipated that increasing hire charges may reduce how frequently the venue is hired and that increased costs may mean some community hirers may not be able to afford the venue.

Subsequently, a reduction in the opening hours is expected but the council feels this should help reduce operating costs with savings and lower staffing levels being met by staff who have chosen to take voluntary redundancy or early retirement.

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The council added that there will also be a reduction in staff hours from a number of fixed-term contracts for part-time staff coming to an end during 2024 and that this reduction in staff hours can be achieved without any implication for staff on permanent contracts.

Nearly all of the regular hirers who responded to a survey indicated they may not or would not be able to continue to hire the facilities if the charges went up significantly but some acknowledged the council’s financial challenges.

A council spokesperson stated: “Having considered all of the operational and financial analysis, taken on board the stakeholder engagement, and set these in the context of the significant budget challenges the council must meet, it is proposed to operate (the) Winding Wheel Theatre in a more commercial way, focussing on commercial productions and increasing hire charges from April 1, 2024.

“As a result of this approach, and the anticipated reduction in opening times of the building, there will be operational savings in staffing and premise management costs.

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“It is anticipated that these two measures will improve the financial performance of the venue which will be reviewed as part of the service’s existing budget review process.”

The cabinet voted in favour to approve a more commercial approach to the programming and hiring of the theatre and that the alternative operational arrangements will be put in place with changes to fees and charges for room and equipment hire.

Some expected increases in fees and charges will range from five per cent for an auditorium wedding package to 60per cent for an auditorium party package with equipment hire increases ranging from one per cent to 13 per cent.

The council’s Winding Wheel report does not deal with any proposed changes to theatre ticket prices because these are negotiated with visiting production companies and the report does not deal with proposed increases in bar and catering prices because these are reviewed during the year.

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Chesterfield Borough Council has blamed its financial plight on the state of the national economy, high inflation and interest rates, the impact of Covid-19, the cost of living crisis, uncertainty over Government funding and rising costs and demands on services.