Council snatches back control of St Albans town hall

TOWN Hall chief executive Joel Baillie-Lane found himself barred from the building yesterday as the district council publicly announced it was taking back the running of the flagship building.

The Town Hall has been leased and run by St Albans Arts - STARTS - since 2007 and the trustees agreed some weeks ago to relinquish the building and return the day-to-day running to the district council.

But no date had been fixed and Mr Baillie-Lane, who has single-handedly run the Town Hall for much of the past couple of years and worked a seven day week, only discovered that the council would be managing the building directly from yesterday when he went to work in the morning and was refused entry by bailiffs.

He now fears that the Town Hall, which has seen a large rise in future bookings in recent months, could revert to being the White Elephant it was before in the council’s hands.

And he is angry and frustrated at the council’s decision to publicly announce the switch without some kind of mutual statement being produced.

“Their actions are completely unwarranted and this could have been resolved in a much more business-like manner. The way they have acted will inevitably have inflamed the situation which should never have got to this point.”

Early in its tenure of the building, STARTS came under fire for not having the expertise to run such a flagship building. Mr Baillie-Lane agreed to take over as chief executive - for much of the time unpaid - to try and get it on its feet and he said this week that he always knew that he would have his work cut out because of the limitations of the building, the terms of the lease and the lack of financial assistance from the council.

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But in recent months bookings had soared and even though STARTS Town Hall owed money to the council, there was no problem with paying it and he anticipated that the building would have been in profit by Christmas.

Despite his optimism, the trustees of STARTS decided to hand back the lease but he had no idea that the announcement would be made yesterday and he would be barred from his own office.

“An arts centre like this with its limitations does not succeed overnight and a lot of time and effort has gone in with local community groups which was just starting to come to fruition. I feel deeply frustrated that it has been whisked away without so much as a courtesy letter from the council to say it was going to happen.”

He added: “I have really enjoyed my time there and loved doing the things we have done whether it be private parties, weddings or arts events. I feel let down by a lot of parties but I genuinely believe that the vision I had and the direction we were going in would have made a difference to the building. My fear is that it will go back to being a great White Elephant.”

The district council stressed it will be business as usual at the Town Hall with all existing bookings honoured and future bookings taken.

Cllr Sheila Burton, the portfolio holder for culture and heritage, said yesterday that STARTS Town Hall had not delivered on the terms of the lease and the council had been given legal advice that it needed to terminate the lease because it was reaching an illegal situation.

She explained that the council’s arts facilities were now expected to be self-funding and not supported by its sports amenities as they had in the past. She maintained the council had sufficient experience to run the building: “We feel we could promote it much better and keep a tighter rein on what it is being let for. We also feel the council is in a better situation to get more activities there.”