I read with some sadness the statement from the trustees of St Mary in the Castle saying they will surrender their lease with Hastings Borough Council, leaving the venue dormant from November this year. The announcement didn’t really come as a surprise.
St Mary in the Castle is an iconic building on the seafront. It is one of two of Hastings’ main entertainment venues along with the White Rock Theatre. Unfortunately, the council can ill afford to subsidise either of these venues, and when the current lease for the White Rock Theatre runs out in 2024, its future will also be in doubt.
The Grade 2 listed building is almost 200 years old and the cost of keeping it running are high. Covid played its part in the trust’s demise but the venue was slow to open after the pandemic and it has been struggling for years to make ends meet. It is sad to see it close as this venue has been host to some fantastic events over the years. Disappointingly, the current trust did not do a good enough job putting on a consistent programme of events that would pay the bills.
Since Covid the trust has been in receipt of £155,000 in Arts Council England and Covid recovery grants, including a small contribution from the council of £18,000. Where did this money go?
Hastings Piano Concerto Competition didn’t hire the venue this year because the trust couldn’t guarantee the heating would be on and instead held preliminary rounds in Rye. Great efforts were made to raise funds for the £42,000 it was going to cost to replace the heating boiler but the work never transpired. It would seem charitable donations, thrown into countless buckets on chilly nights, were spent elsewhere.
It is a shame the council has focussed time and money on new, undeliverable projects such as the Harold place toilet demolition and failed restaurant project, or spending tens of thousands of pounds on drawing up plans for a new arts venue in the Bohemia Quarter, when our cultural heritage assets were being ignored.
The council now finds itself with a huge liability on its hands and will become responsible once again for the upkeep of St Mary in the Castle. The council must not let this building go to wrack and ruin.
It seems unlikely that a new trust structure could be put in place without significant investment and subsidy from Hastings Borough Council, but this appears to be completely out of the question given the financial crisis the council itself faces.
Perhaps it can be sold to someone who will invest in this iconic venue and make it the commercially viable, cultural asset this town deserves.