To consider the report of the Cabinet Member for Culture and Leisure presenting the 2023-28 Blackfriars Priory Business Plan and seeking support to enter the next lease agreement with English Heritage.
11.1 The Cabinet Member for Culture and Leisure, Councillor Andrew Lewis, introduced the report and explained that a 5-year business plan had been produced to gain support for Gloucester City Council to continue to run Blackfriars Priory under a new lease agreement. He confirmed that the council’s preference was to negotiate a longer lease of up to 25 years with English Heritage in the future. Councillor Lewis referred Members to the mission and values outlined in the Blackfriars Business Plan at Appendix 1, and expressed the view that if a 25 year lease could be secured, Blackfriars could become the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Gloucester City. Councillor Lewis expressed his view that Blackfriars Priory was an excellent venue and thanked staff for their hard work.
11.2 The Chair commented that the Blackfriars Priory Business Plan was a good report. He queried whether the proposal was to expand into other activities over time or focus on weddings. Councillor Lewis responded that a balance needed to be found, as he felt that with such an historic building, it was important to retain a multi-use element for educational purposes. The Head of Culture further explained that under the current lease, a certain amount of public access needed to be provided.
11.3 In response to further comments from the Chair regarding acoustic challenges, Councillor Lewis agreed that Blackfriars Priory might not be the most appropriate venue for singing and although he was open to exploring the possibility of concerts, he would not want to change the appearance of the historic building.
11.4 Councillor Hilton observed that Blackfriars Priory was a fine historical building and commented that it was good to see the venue being used. He noted that some challenges facing the venue included lack of accommodation on-site, lack of storage, acoustics, and that the surroundings might not be seen as luxurious as other venues. He asked how these challenges could be overcome, and whether the Cabinet Member was confident that the 5-year plan would achieve the projected £47k profit by 2028. Councillor Lewis stated that he was confident that this figure could be achieved, highlighting that Blackfriars Priory was an award-winning venue. In response to Councillor Hilton’s concerns around on-site accommodation, Councillor Lewis noted that the Forum development, which when completed would include hotel accommodation, was nearby. Councillor Lewis advised the Committee that the venue had already taken in around £130k worth of bookings this year, and stated that he was confident of more bookings being made. He noted that the forecast suggested that the venue should be self-sufficient by 2028.
11.5 Councillor Hilton asked for the Cabinet Member’s views as to whether boutique accommodation in Phillpotts Warehouse would be more suitable due to it being within shorter walking distance. Councillor Lewis advised that the future use of Phillpotts Warehouse was at that stage unknown, however the Forum development was underway.
11.6 Councillor Wilson asked for further information around the rationale behind not pursuing a 25-year lease straight away. He wondered whether after 5 years, English Heritage might be tempted to retain the asset if it was seen as a profit-making venture. The Head of Culture explained that the proposal was to try and secure a 25-year lease with a 5-year break clause. He noted that this clause with allow either the City Council or English Heritage to step away if appropriate.
11.7 In response to an additional query from Councillor Wilson regarding the business model of English Heritage. The Head of Culture explained that although the organisation oversees and owns heritage attractions, it was moving towards a model of seeking partners to manage those assets on their behalf.
11.8 In response to a query from Councillor Dee regarding education opportunities in the Scriptorium, Councillor Lewis confirmed that the Scriptorium was not currently used as wedding venue and was not part of the existing lease arrangements. The Head of Culture noted that Councillor Dee’s suggestion was a good one and that it was an aspiration to make use of the venue as an educational resource.
11.9 Councillor Conder raised concerns that the volunteers at the Civic Trust were unsure as to the opening times or events taking place at Blackfriars Priory, and expressed the view that it was important that the Civic Trust was kept up to date. Councillor Lewis confirmed that his team were in regular contact with the Civic Trust, however he agreed that Officers would contact the organisation with a view of reiterating the Blackfriars Priory opening times.
11.10 Councillor Castle asked for further information regarding the heating arrangements at the venue. Councillor Lewis noted that there were radiators in the building and that the team were looking at further heating solutions for the autumn and winter. The Head of Culture advised that Blackfriars Priory was a challenging building to heat, and although options such as blowers could be used, the council needed to be mindful of energy consumption.
11.11 In response to an additional query from Councillor Castle relating to the possibility of year-round weddings, the Head of Culture confirmed that weddings tended to take place during the summer months, and that dates between March and November were most common.
RESOLVED – That the Overview and Scrutiny Committee NOTE the report.