YEOVIL'S main theatre could be run at a more local level if a stalled regeneration plan can be restarted.

Somerset Council announced in October 2023 that it would be putting its £30m revamp of the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil town centre on hold to reassess the business case in light of high inflation and interest rates.

As part of its annual budget proposals, published in early-January, the council proposed keeping the theatre closed for the next 12 months, saving £174,000, while a new business case on its future could be put together.

Yeovil Town Council agreed in principle in October 2023 that it would financially support the regeneration of the theatre, arguing that simply reopening the facility in its current condition would not to enough for Yeovil’s long-term economic and cultural well-being.

Officers have now confirmed that discussions on restarting the regeneration scheme in some form are under way – and that that the town council will end up running the venue once it reopens.

As part of its recently agreed budget, the town council has agreed to take on the running of numerous local services – including Yeovil Recreation Ground (known locally as Mudford Rec) and Yeovil Country Park.

In addition, the town council has reached an agreement with the unitary authority that when the Octagon Theatre reopens after any regeneration, it will become the town council’s responsibility to run.

Town council chairman Councillor Graham Oakes told Radio Ninesprings: “We’ve been working in partnership with Somerset Council for some time on this, but this is beyond any rebuild. When it reopens, it becomes our property and we run it.

“If people live in a Band D [average] property, their bill will go up by £2.51 a week. Some people say that’s good value to save Mudford Rec, the Country Park, the Octagon, Westlands and more – and I agree with them.

“We have to do as a town council what’s right for the people of Yeovil – and that’s what we’re doing.”

Somerset County Gazette: Yeovil town councillors at the special meeting held at Westlands on October 10.Yeovil town councillors at the special meeting held at Westlands on October 10. (Image: Daniel Mumby)

The regeneration of the Octagon Theatre was originally expected by South Somerset District Council to cost just over £23m, with the government providing a grant of £10m via Arts Council England and the majority of the remainder being funded by external borrowing.

Numerous “long-overdue” improvements were to be delivered to the venue, including  – namely:

An increased seating capacity in the main auditorium from 622 to 900, with enhanced technical facilities that will improve the comfort for audiences

Two new smaller cinema/studio spaces, predominately for film screenings but also able to host smaller-scale live performances

A dance studio, which will become the new home for the Octagon Academy and “the perfect place” for all dance classes

A community studio offering an alternative space for additional classes, as well as a rehearsal room for local choirs, theatre groups, and arts and crafts workshops

A greatly improved café bar area, open throughout the day

Improved front-of-house and customer facilities

Improved backstage accessibility

A fly tower, which can be used for flying scenery, enabling larger visiting companies to use the venue
A changing places toilet for those with additional needs

The district council voted in February 2022 to allocate a further £6m to the project in light of rising construction costs, bringing the budget to just over £29m.

The project went out to formal tender in January 2023, with planning permission being granted by councillors shortly afterwards –  with contractors estimating that it would cost in the region of £30.7m to implement all the improvements wanted by the council.

With rising interest rates, it is was not longer viable for the council to borrow the remaining money for the project.

The theatre has been closed since April 2023, with £1.77m being spent to date on “a range or preparatory works”, including surveys to confirm no reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC) is present in the building.

As part of its budget, Yeovil Town Council has pledged to provide up to £3.75m of capital funding towards any future regeneration project – which may see some of the original elements removed to bring down the cost.

Mr Oakes said: “We need to have money in the budget for the Octagon Theatre for when it reopens.

“Interest rates were the big killer on the project, and that original scheme has now gone – but we don’t want to lose the £10m the government gave us, and we want our theatre back.

“There’s conversations going on with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the Arts Council, Somerset Council and ourselves to try and save the project in a watered-down form.

“The feedback I’ve had so far from DCMS is that had we [the town council] not stepped in to say we’d support it, this project would now be dead.

“When it comes back, it will be under the ownership of Yeovil Town Centre, and our very successful team down there will be TUPE-d across. I’m hoping that the Octagon will go from strength to strength.

“If all we had in this country were things that weren’t subsidised through our taxes, you wouldn’t have the Natural History Museum, you wouldn’t have the Victoria and Albert Museum, and you wouldn’t have many of our theatres – and this country would lose so much.”

Somerset Council’s executive committee is currently due to discuss  the future of the Octagon Theatre at its meeting in early-April, according to the forward plan published on the council’s website.

In a joint statement with the town council, Somerset Council confirmed that all capital funding for the Octagon Theatre had been removed from its budget until the new business case had come forward.

It declined to say how much it would cost to reopen the theatre with its original facilities.

A spokesman said: “Somerset Council inherited a business case approval and capital allocation from the former South Somerset District Council. The scheme was based on the receipt of a grant and significant levels of borrowing.

“At an executive committee meeting on October 4, 2023, it was concluded that the current scheme is not affordable, and an option appraisal would be necessary. Consequently, the current scheme is being removed from the capital programme.

“An alternative business case has been put to DCMS. Yeovil Town Council have pledged £3.75m of capital funding and to work as partners on this important project.

“The savings proposals indicate that we would maintain the current temporary closure whilst we await news on external funding from DCMS, and if awarded, a revised business case will be put to full council along with a request to add the revised scheme to the capital programme.”