Pressure mounts on town hall with second Stratford Circus protest

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Up to 80 protestors outside Stratford Circus which is due to become Newham Council's flagship youth zone. - Credit: Equity UK

An actor has pleaded with Newham Council not to shut the community out of an arts venue which is being turned into a youth centre.

Up to 80 people joined a protest outside the former home of Stratford Circus to challenge the plans on Saturday, October 16.

Protestors raised banners reading "Save Stratford Circus" and marched to Old Town Hall, Stratford, waving placards.

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L-R: Ellen Goodey and Ray Downing from Blue Sky Actors. - Credit: Jon King

Ellen Goodey is a member of Blue Sky Actors which was the venue's resident theatre company for actors with learning disabilities and difficulties.

The 39-year-old, addressing Newham Council, said: "Keep Stratford Circus open. It means a lot to me. It's my second home. It will mean a lot to the public to see performances there."

Newham removed centre operator Stratford Arts Trust from the venue in Theatre Square last year

The council has been tendering for new management to run the venue as a youth arts service.

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Protestors march to Old Town Hall, Stratford. - Credit: Jon King

But critics say there is no remit or funding for professional or community arts to run alongside an existing youth arts programme.

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Ray Downing, who runs Blue Sky Actors, said there were many places around the borough which could be turned into youth zones.

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Philip Hedley alleges Newham has failed to keep up with the Labour Party's approach to the arts. - Credit: Equity UK

Philip Hedley, who was artistic director at Theatre Royal Stratford East and worked with famed theatre director Joan Littlewood, told protestors the arts are needed now more than ever.

He welcomed national Labour Party recognition of the sector's importance, but added: "Newham Council hasn't caught up with their own party and what [it is] saying about how important theatre is.

"We are here again today because we have to go on defending the absolutely obvious," he said.

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Blue Sky Actors was based at Stratford Circus. - Credit: Jon King

Equity, the performing arts practitioners' union, is making three demands of Newham.

It wants the council to act as guarantor for at least the full procurement contract value of £460,000.

Equity maintains £270,000 pledged by the council must not be the maximum, arguing the council can afford £1million a year.

It describes a minimum funding guarantee of £460,000 as "a start".

But the local authority has ruled out stumping up £1m, saying it is "simply not possible" given the needs of Newham residents.

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James Ivens addresses the crowd outside Old Town Hall, Stratford. - Credit: Jon King

James Ivens, secretary of Equity's north and east London general branch, criticised Newham's pledge for not being a "stable financial base" on which to operate a "serious" arts venue.

He felt insufficient funding from Newham would deter private sector investors from backing the centre.

The union welcomes youth provision, but wants Newham to place more emphasis on professional shows and back arts projects for adults too.

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Faisal Yusuf from Blue Sky Actors with Ray Downing. - Credit: Jon King

A council spokesperson said: "Newham is fully committed to a rich and inclusive cultural offer and [is] developing a cultural strategy."

That includes working with bodies including Equity as well as "exploring ways" to "exploit" cultural opportunities stemming from Arts Council England having identified the borough as a priority.

However, Mr Ivens warned the venue would lose Arts Council England funding as a result of its change of use to a youth centre.

Newham maintains its flagship Stratford youth zone delivers on a commitment to youngsters and it is progressing procurement of a long-term provider to operate the building.

The successful bidder would also develop and widen a cultural programme alongside the local authority's youth empowerment service.

By Mr Ivens echoed Equity's calls for a conference between Newham, Equity and the community.

"This entire process has been top down," he claimed.

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Equity has made a series of demands of Newham Council in a bid to make sure arts provision will be on offer to adults. - Credit: Jon King

Saturday's action is the second protest in a campaign backed by the London and South East England regional division of the Trades Union Congress.

The Greater London Association of Trades Union Councils also supports the campaign, including Newham, Hackney and Waltham Forest branches.

Vice-chair of Newham Trades Council, Niall Mulholland, said: "It's harder for working class people to get into the arts. We refuse to be pushed out of Newham and for precious resources for the arts to be closed down."

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