News | Hazlitt Theatre How you saved the Hazlitt

PEOPLE power prevailed in the battle to prevent the Hazlitt Theatre’s closure, and Downs Mail’s SAVE THE HAZLITT campaign lasted just 75 days. Simon Finlay tells the story…

NOVEMBER 12, 2020: The Maid- stone Borough Council (MBC) Economic Regeneration and Leisure Committee (ERL), on ad- vice from unelected officers but backed by the political leadership, votes to terminate the Parkwood Theatres contract and return the venue to council control.

NOVEMBER 13: 4.05pm: A four- line press release titled “Future of the Hazlitt Theatre” drops. From official paperwork and council sources, it’s clear closure is an op- tion. Cash-strapped MBC, hit by falling revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic, is consider- ing the withdrawal of the £243,000 annual subsidy it pays to Parkwood Theatres, which runs the Hazlitt.

NOVEMBER 13: 4.45pm: Downs Mail launches its “SAVE THE HAZLITT” campaign on Face- book. The public outcry begins. By 8pm, nearly 2,000 readers have joined. Downs Mail readers ex- press rage and dismay in mes- sages.

NOVEMBER 15: The “SAVE THE HAZLITT” campaign following rises to 3,500. A cross-party dele- gation of borough councillors, led by Cllr Jonathan Purle and sup- ported by Cllrs Louise Brice (Con), Eddie Powell (Ind), Ash- leigh Kimmance (Lib Dem) and Lottie Parfitt-Reid (Con), writes to the MBC chief executive Alison Broom to “call in” the ERL deci- sion before the Policy & Re- sources Committee (P&R). P&R has the power to overturn the de- cision. The delegation complains the “fate of the Hazlitt had not … been subject to any form of pub- lic consultation”.

NOVEMBER 15: ERL chairman Paul Harper (Lab), part of the Lib- eral Democrat/Labour/Indepen- dent coalition in charge of MBC, issues a statement claiming the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the council’s finances “wrecked”. He blamed the “National Conserva- tive Government” for the cuts.

NOVEMBER 16: 4.54pm: A press release drops from MBC. It says the ERL took the “very difficult decision to end the contract with Parkwood Theatres”, which runs the Hazlitt for the council. Cllr Martin Cox, the Liberal Democrat leader of MBC claimed “the ter- mination option was

unfortu- 8

Cllr Jonathan Purle, who led the cross-party delegation to call in the decision to close the Hazlitt Theatre nately the conclusion”.

NOVEMBER 17: Nearly 90% of respondents to a Downs Mail poll declare the Hazlitt issue would af- fect the way they would vote in the next council election.

NOVEMBER 19: The Downs Mail “SAVE THE HAZLITT” Facebook page has attracted 4,300 followers. We reveal that MBC’s own papers show the Hazlitt con- tributes £5m to the local economy.

The council took fright at the public reaction so close to the (May 6) local elections...

NOVEMBER 20: The Friends of the Hazlitt claim MBC “owes it to the people of Maidstone to re- open the theatre as soon as COVID-19 restrictions are lifted”.

NOVEMBER 23: Downs Mail re- ports Hazlitt Theatre’s manager, Martin Cleverley, has written to council top brass to warn that Earl Street will become deserted.

NOVEMBER 24: Confidential “yellow” papers, obtained by Downs Mail and published online ahead of the following night’s crunch vote to save the Hazlitt Theatre, show unelected officers

strongly urged members of the ERL to take the option which saves the most money and leaves the authority least contractually tied – ending the Parkwood con- tract. The “SAVE THE HAZLITT” Facebook page’s followers top 5,000.

NOVEMBER 25: The P&R com- mittee, chaired by the MBC leader Cllr Martin Cox, sits for four hours. Despite his earlier state-

ment, Cllr Cox now claims the Parkwood Theatre contract has not been terminated. It becomes clear some members would seek clarity on MBC’s closure and “mothballing” proposals, amid wider concerns that the ERL panel had not had sufficient time to evaluate the detail or conse- quences.

There were impassioned speeches from members of the public.

Cllrs Cox and Harper offer

other suggested uses for the venue but these are rejected in favour of Tory member Jonathan Purle’s

resolution for a deferment until January 19 2021, to allow for greater clarity on points raised. The Tories succeeded by a sin- gle vote (8 to 7) with the help of Lib Dem Nick de Wiggondene- Sheppard and independent Gor- don Newton. The deferment was opposed by Liberal Democrats, Labour and an independent.

JANUARY 7: MBC announced that the ERL meeting on January 19 had been delayed by a week until January 26.

JANUARY 18: Council papers ap- pear online for the ERL meeting on January 26, with a U-turn on its earlier position, recommending “the council continues to pay its agreed contract fee to Parkwood Leisure for the provision of ser- vices at the Hazlitt Arts Centre”. Cllr Purle said: “It's basically a complete U-turn. It's a victory for the people and common sense.”

JANUARY 26: The ERL commit- tee unanimously votes to retain Parkwood, with a review in April. Council officials now claim the roll out of Coronavirus vaccines has shifted the council’s position. But one insider said: “They took fright at the public reaction so close to the (May 6) local elec- tions.”

JANUARY 27: PM Boris Johnson extends lockdown until March 8.

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