Preston Guild Hall: Three years in mothballs - is there any future for the city's famous entertainment venue?

Preston's showpiece Guild Hall has now reached its third anniversary in mothballs, with still no sign of it re-opening soon.

By Brian Ellis
Wednesday, 18th May 2022, 7:43 am

Legal issues continue to prevent the council from unlocking the venue - and the hold-up is costing the city's night-time economy a fortune.

Restaurants and bars which used to serve the thousands of concert-lovers and theatre-goers have not seen a penny since summer 2019 when Town Hall bailiffs took control of the famous auditorium and changed the locks.

And there are warnings that while the courtroom stand-off between the local authority and the family of the late Simon Rigby continues, Preston is fast disappearing off the North West arts and entertainment map.

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The Guild Hall was the focal point of entertainment in Preston for 46 years until in was shut down in 2019.

One producer claimed arts and culture in the city was "at crisis point" and predicted: "A lot of these people will never return."

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Town Hall chiefs have remained tight-lipped for the last three years over the difficulties preventing the venue from opening up again.

They have cited "ongoing matters" that are being addressed by their legal team as the reason for staying silent, despite an avalanche of enquiries from the public about the future of the Grand Hall and its neighbouring Charter Theatre.

Simon Rigby receives the keys to the Guild Hall after buying it for £1 in 2014.

But Coun John Potter, leader of the Lib-Dems on the city council, claimed the stumbling block was a big one and "not of our making".

He said the court battle which owner Simon Rigby had been fighting with the council in the months before his death in August 2020 was still ongoing, with the entrepreneur's family having "picked up the baton."

The Lancashire Post can reveal Mr Rigby told us just weeks before his death that he was suing the authority for almost £9m over losses he claimed he had suffered after the council snatched the venue back in what he alleged was an illegal repossession.

Coun Potter said: "Mr Rigby's family have continued with the case where he left off. So that risks what can and can't be said because there are legal proceedings.

Closed down in 2019 after bailiffs changed the locks.

"As an opposition party leader, if I could blame the ruling Labour group for this I would. But neither myself nor the Tories can blame the council.

"Until these legal issues are sorted it is tying the city's hands. The council is getting blamed for this but it isn't their fault.

"People are rightly asking what is the long-term future of the Guild Hall because that building has a life span left and we need to get this sorted to allow it to have its final few decades of life."

Preston Council sold the Guild Hall to Mr Rigby for just £1 in October 2014 after admitting it could no longer afford to run it. The only other option was to mothball it.

Among the top stars to appear at the Guild Hall over the years was singer Bing Crosby.

The businessman, who also tried to buy the city's iconic bus station, claimed he lost around £6m in the five years he ran the venue before it was snatched back at the dead of night by council officers.

The Post approached Mr Rigby's family for a comment, but son Mick declined saying he wasn't aware of the details of the case.

Preston BID, which represents around 800 businesses in the city centre, said the closure had made a big impact on the hospitality sector locally.

“The loss of the Guild Hall has had an immeasurable impact on leisure and night time economy visitor numbers and neighbouring businesses," said BID manager Mark Whittle.

"When the hall enjoyed a strong programme of events, the city centre was a more animated place, especially in the early evening. The ripple effect was of great support to local businesses.

The famous Guild Hall has been closed for three years with still no sign of re-opening.

“Shops, hotels, bars and restaurants, many of which are independent, have certainly felt the impact of its closure, as have Prestonians and people from across the county, who previously supported the venue.

“It is disappointing that as a city, in the heart of Lancashire, we currently don’t have a major leisure and entertainment venue operating.

"We genuinely hope to see the Guild Hall re-open, as soon as possible, and are confident that private sector support would be forthcoming if the City Council wished to pursue working with an experienced operator.

“Whilst we have several smaller scale venues which offer a strong programme of live entertainment, such as Blitz and The Ferret, it would be a positive move to look at relaunching 53 Degrees too.”

Arts producer Garry Cook, who organises many events in Preston, said the city was "in danger of losing an entire generation to arts and culture."

"Not just because of the situation with the Guild Hall, but also because there is no long-term plan for a mid-sized theatre space and arts centre.

"When a city goes a few years without a venue big enough to host touring theatre shows, big-name comedians and contemporary performance, it loses its audience and a lot of those people will never return.

"I have had to turn down so many offers of shows because I can't access a venue big enough. It kills me when I then see these shows being performed in Burnley, Chorley and Darwen Library. Why should people living in Preston be missing out?

"Arts and culture - events, exhibitions, performances - is not just about entertainment, it's also affects how people feel about where they live, increases pride in the community and improves mental health.

“And for every £1 you spend on arts and culture £4 is generated within the local economy. That might not sound much, but if you spend £50,000 on arts and culture in Preston, £200,000 is contributed to the local economy.

"There has not been enough investment in arts and culture in the city, and not enough support given to creatives.”

Preston Council has been approached for a comment.