Protest at closure of Watermans

Image above: Watermans protest (11 April); Photograph Brentford TV

Watermans Centre closes despite last minute protests

The Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford closed yesterday, (Thursday 11 April) despite a last minute protest. The Hounslow Arts Trust announced last month the centre was to close because it could no longer afford to keep the building open. The announcement of the closure sparked protests from local residents and councillors.

The riverside venue in Brentford has served the population of west London for decades with live theatre, dance and music, a cinema and restaurant, and a gallery for contemporary art shows. The Trust has put on school holiday programmes for children in everything from Manga, the Japanese style of cartoon drawing, to Capoeira, the Brazilian dance martial art and game that includes elements of dance, acrobatics and music.

READ ALSO: Watermans arts centre in Brentford closes

READ ALSO: Watermans closure “the only viable option” for Hounslow Arts Trust, says Ruth Cadbury

A subject of debate in the by-election

The debate over the closure has become a political football at a time when there is a Council by-election coming up in Brentford and a General Election expected later in the year.

The Hounslow Labour Group has made it very clear that the decision to close Watermans was made by Hounslow Arts Trust, which ran it. Cllr Shivraj Grewal, Labour Group Spokesperson for Communities, Equalities and Culture, said:

“We are saddened that the Hounslow Arts Trust has taken the difficult decision to close the Watermans Arts Centre in Brentford from mid-April. There has been a lot of discussion surrounding the closure of the Watermans Arts Centre, and we would like to provide some much needed clarity on the Council’s position.

“Hounslow Council’s Labour administration is committed to supporting a rich cultural offer for everyone across the borough, recognising the many benefits culture provides for our diverse communities.”

The Trust will continue to provide community arts programmes in different parts of the borough, such as the outdoor events programme they produce at Bell Square in Hounslow town centre.

Image above: Conservative councillors among protesters demonstrating against the closure on Saturday

Conservatives called for closure to be stopped

Michael Denniss, the Conservative candidate for the Brentford West by-election and Laura Blumenthal, the Parliamentary candidate for Brentford and Isleworth have both written to Hounslow Council’s Cabinet asking for an “emergency pause” on the closure.

“The Watermans provides a crucial hub for art, education and culture,” they say. “It stands as a beacon of community excellence, not only for Brentford and the London Borough of Hounslow but for the whole of London too.

“St Faith’s Players, Hart beeps and Hounslow Visual Arts are just some of the many organisations that provide a truly inclusive service to all. For many schoolchildren, the Watermans is their first experience of theatre and it provides a valuable venue for workshops.

“Brentford has already given so much land for the creation of new housing compared to other parts of the borough. It is now time to give something back and support the Watermans to flourish and continue as a real source of value for its current and future residents.”

Image above: Design for Albany Riverside development; CGI London Green

As part of the development of Brentford town centre there is supposed to be a mixed development on two sites – the current Watermans site and the old police station site – by developer London Green.

The Watermans site is set to become a residential only development, ‘Albany Riverside’, with 193 flats in five blocks with views over the river and towards Kew Gardens.

The old police station site is due to be redeveloped as a mix of affordable housing and a new arts centre with a larger theatre, two cinemas with a gallery for film festivals, and space for a café/restaurant. But the development is on hold because building costs have shot up so much since the development was agreed.

Image above: Old police station redevelopment CHI; London Green

Conservative opposition blames the Labour council

The letter from Michael Denniss and Laura Blumenthal continues:

“We are concerned not only with the decision to close the Watermans, but also with the way that the Council treated residents and businesses . Notice of the closure came completely out of the blue on 20 March with a hasty shut down date of 11 April.

“We had the opportunity to speak to some of those businesses working in the Watermans and we understand that they were legally entitled to a notice period of a minimum of six months. This alleged breach of contract has caused considerable distress particularly for those employees who are particularly vulnerable.

“We are further concerned of the Council’s exposure to this entirely avoidable legal and financial liability, and that residents may be the ones who are left to foot the bill.

Image above: Members of the Green Party protesting at Watermans closure

“There has further been a lack of communication with residents, with many still saying they aren’t aware that the Watermans is planning to close. We hope that you acknowledge this strangely short notice and stand up for the residents, its many business leaders, artists and fundraising professionals, by allowing them the time to create a plan to keep the centre open and financially viable. This can only be done with a decision by you to stop the closure of Watermans on 11th April.

“We stand shoulder to shoulder with those residents and local business leaders who have come together to commit to finding ways to make Watermans financially viable. We maintain the view that it is viable, and that the Council has historically missed opportunities to make it so, such as the failure to advertise the cinema’s films or use the large car parking space with a more commercial mind. There are plenty of ways to commercialise the centre, leverage local developer funds that will make the Watermans an economic success.

“We therefore request that you pause the closure, publish the centre’s financial accounts for full transparency and allow the Save the Watermans campaign group to produce a plan for long-term financial sustainability for the centre, until the new arts centre opens.

“Please back the local community by believing that they can make Watermans financially sustainable. ”

Image above: Cllr Katherine Dunne’s response to Conservative candidate Mike Denniss

“You don’t even understand what’s happened” says Deputy Leader Cllr Katherine Dunne

The letter was posted on ‘X’ (formerly Twitter) by Mike Denniss, prompting a reply from Deputy Leader of the Council, Katherine Dunne, who said:

“Small chance of that when you don’t even seem to understand what’s happened. Watermans gave notice to the Council it was closing, not the other way around. Will you publish your replies? Here’s mine”

Cllr Dunne posted screenshots of her response, which read:

“People from Brentford and beyond and rightly upset that the Watermans is closing and the council has received requests to step in and keep it open. However, this would have meant a huge injection of new funding, and the Trust felt that running the building would have been too expensive and not sustainable, therefore this would have negatively impacted on its provision of community and arts events across the borough, as well as its ability to attract external grants.

“Hounslow council and Arts Council England are committed to supporting the Trust in providing its valuable arts and cultural engagement work in the community. It will continue to deliver its outdoor events at Bell Square, its Creative People and Places activities, and its other community-based programmes that provide exciting cultural experiences for Hounsl0w residents each year.

“Furthermore, the Council is committed to delivering a new arts centre on the Police Station site in Brentford and we are working closely with all our local partners, including the Hounslow Arts Trust, to achieve this.

“This work on this important development is ongoing and continues to be a top priority. We also remain committed that there will be no development at the current Watermans building until the new arts centre is delivered.

“We would like to see the current Watermans building continue to be used, and have started conversations with the community and voluntary sector to explore how best we can use it. We’re happy to consider any fully costed proposals that would enable the building to be brought back into use without the need for subsidy.

“I hope that reassures you that, while the news about Watermans is a blow, we are doing all we can to continue the provision of arts in Brentford and across the borough for the long term.”

Image above: Members of the Green Party protesting at Watermans closure

“Labour are focused on concrete and steel not how the locals feel” say Green Party

The Green Party issued a statement saying:

“Labour are focused on concrete and steel not how the locals feel.”

Freya Summersgill, the Green Party Candidate for the Brentford West by-election, and Chas Warlow, the Green Party Candidate for London South West, joined local residents to protest against the closure.

Freya said: “Today our community is not just losing a theatre, cinema and contemporary art gallery, we are also losing an important affordable social hub.  Like many families in the area, Watermans children’s theatre has captivated my two boys.  With the closure, however temporary, our children’s creative education will suffer.

“This is a dark day for the local community and is short-sighted considering the significant increase in demand the new housing developments in Brentford will bring.

“Labour are focused on concrete and steel not how the locals feel. Labour needs to recognise how important Brentford’s vibrant cultural life is for the community and understand the anger this decision has caused.  Fortunately, the up-coming by-election gives people a chance to show them exactly how they feel.”

Image above: Watermans

“High energy prices and maintenanance costs to blame”, say Hounslow Arts Trust

Hounslow Arts Trust blames energy price increases and on-going maintenance costs. In a statement made at the time the closure was announced they said:

‘The charity has taken the difficult decision to close Watermans as the best possible way of protecting both the interests of Hounslow residents and the organisation’s financial viability ahead of its relocation to the site of the old police station building in Brentford.

‘In the context of a challenging recovery period following the pandemic, the impact of energy price rises and the on-going costs of maintenance for the current venue, it makes operational and financial sense to focus on the delivery of outdoor events at Bell Square, Creative People and Places Hounslow activities and other community-based programmes which do not require use of the current building.’

The closure is “very sad”, says Ruth Cadbury MP

Ruth Cadbury told The Chiswick Calendar that the closure was the “only viable option” for the Hounslow Arts Trust. During an interview with The Chiswick Calendar she said:

“If you look at the Companies House records for Hounslow Arts Trust, they were operating at something like a £400,000 loss in 2022-23. Their big bills went from something like £49,000 to £125,000.

“Going into Covid they were financially vibrant. Ticket sales provided over 75% their income. Grants from Hounslow and national grants were less than 25%. Since then, grants have flatlined, bills have shot up and ticket sales have decreased, so the costs outweigh their income.”

It was, she said, “Very sad. I’ve been going there since I used to take my children when they were small, 20 years ago.”

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