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Row erupts over future of Stratford Circus Arts Centre

PUBLISHED: 17:00 13 March 2020 | UPDATED: 17:25 13 March 2020

L-R: New Young Voice Collective members, Abbi Asante, Priscilla Hossain and centre director Tania Wilmer. Picture: Jon King

L-R: New Young Voice Collective members, Abbi Asante, Priscilla Hossain and centre director Tania Wilmer. Picture: Jon King

Archant

A row has erupted after the future of a “nationally recognised” arts centre was thrown into doubt.

Stratford Circus Arts Centre was established in 2001. Picture: Jon KingStratford Circus Arts Centre was established in 2001. Picture: Jon King

Stratford Circus Arts Centre in Theatre Square has claimed the council wants to get it out of a building it rents from the local authority to make way for a flagship youth centre at the Theatre Square hub.

But Newham has accused centre operator, the charity Stratford Arts Trust, of misleading the public over the future of the building which Stratford Circus occupies at a peppercorn rent.

The charity also accuses Newham mayor, Rokhsana Fiaz, of failing to provide details of how it will compensate for the loss of the venue's £1.6million annual income.

Outgoing centre director, Tania Wilmer, said: 'This place is a real asset to the borough and should not be lost.

'This is a haven for people. It has national recognition. The team is obviously really upset. They feel this just doesn't make sense.'

However, Ms Fiaz said: 'It's regretful that an organisation which has benefited considerably from the council's generosity, is circulating misleading information about the council's intentions which isn't fair to the young people who will benefit from future plans.

'For too long, the council has been pumping in money to prop up the Stratford Arts Trust.'

She added the trust has occupied the building for nine years without formal agreement or paying the council rent for 'some time'. She claimed the council had also been propping it up financially.

But Mrs Wilmer, who has worked at Stratford Circus for 10 years, said it has a sustainable business model, adding she hoped an 'incredible' youth zone and 'thriving' Stratford Circus could share the space.

About 145,000 people per year visit the centre which employs 19 permanent staff. It has commissioned artists including choreographer Akram Khan MBE.

Mrs Wilmer explained the venue was up for working with the council on a solution, but said talks 'went quiet' last September. The centre then received a legal notice to quit.

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Ms Fiaz said the trust stays afloat by renting rooms to arts organisations and had even asked for £250,000 from the town hall per year to use a 'small' space in a building which is owned by the council.

'I find that deeply insulting to the young people of Newham, especially as that amount of money could fund around five youth workers,' she said.

However, the centre says it receives grants and donations amounting to between £400,000 and £450,000 to cover its £300,000 overheads.

Lawyers served the notice to vacate after 18 months of discussions between the trust and council, which says the order followed the charity's refusal to address the occupancy of the building.

'The council-owned building is an important community asset and we want to use it to benefit more young people,' the mayor said.

But Mrs Wilmer said 10,000 youngsters already take advantage of Stratford Circus's programmes.

Abbi Asante - a member of the New Young Voice Collective, based at the hub - said: 'It's amazing what Stratford Circus offers the community. It's fine the way it is.'

Fellow member, Priscilla Hossain, added: 'We already do so much for youth. We also have stuff for elderly people, toddlers and babies. What will happen to them?'

The council insists it is not closing the building, but is planning a 'repurposed' Stratford Circus to be the home of Newham's flagship, arts based youth zone, starting in April with a transitional period to develop a full programme of arts based youth provision due to start in August.

'We haven't asked the Stratford Arts Trust to conclude their current programme of events or activities immediately,' Ms Fiaz said.

The flagship centre would fulfil part of Ms Fiaz's election pledge to double Newham's youth zones to eight.

Tania agreed there needs to be a youth zone, but taking away one resource and replacing it with another was not the way to serve people.

'This is a jewel in Stratford. In a borough with low levels of engagement in the arts, an organization like this is crucial. I'm really proud of what we've been able to achieve. To hear of the love people have for this organization has been really heartening,' she said.

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