King's Theatre: Edinburgh Council's incompetence may have sealed its fate – John McLellan

Flash the cash! We’ve only got 30 days to save the King’s Theatre! If Flash Gordon could save the world from Ming the Merciless in 14 hours, then there’s still time to rescue the Grand Old Lady of Leven Street.

A month is all Capital Theatres chief executive Fiona Gibson has given the King’s after the failure of Edinburgh Council’s application for UK Government Levelling-Up money, and now Scotland Secretary Alister Jack is under pressure to find the £9m needed to kick-start the refurbishment project, now costing £35.6m.

He’d be within his rights to drop the curtain because the King’s revamp wasn’t a specific bid but part of the council’s £22m programme for a selection of venues and projects including the Usher Hall and Queen’s Hall, and new arts facilities in Wester Hailes and Pennywell.

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They’re all laudable, but Scottish councils and charities are competing for funds and the criteria was clear: for “a large cultural project” of “high visible impact” and “exceptionally high quality” which would “support the visitor economy”.

Note the singular “a large project”, but Edinburgh decided to lump a few together and pretend it was one, effectively saying to the UK Government, “give us £22m and we’ll let you know how we’ve spent it”. Meanwhile, Kilmarnock's Palace Theatre got £20m.

Had Edinburgh’s approach been successful, the likely outcome would have been a bun-fight amongst councillors with ward interests to grab some of the loot, a competition within a competition with a high chance of diluted impact, especially as costs are continuing to rise.

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Whether it was known over the summer the King’s would need as much as £9m isn’t clear, but it was obvious at June’s housing committee, where the bid was approved, that a pick’n’mix approach wouldn’t work.

Director of place Paul Lawrence, with years of experience in managing arts projects, told the meeting if five different projects were submitted the “chances of success would be relatively limited”, so why anyone thought the outcome would be different by bunching six projects under the umbrella of “cultural regeneration” is hard to fathom. But that’s what they did.

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Alan Cumming plays Robert Burns in dance-theatre show Burn at the King's Theatre during Edinburgh International Festival (Picture: Jane Blarlow/PA Wire)

Not wise after the event, Conservative group leader Iain Whyte correctly warned that meeting the council’s approach was “unfocussed”. Perhaps having received millions through the City Region Deal for the new Dunard Concert Hall, and then £16m for the development of the Granton Gasholder in the first round of Levelling-Up awards, Edinburgh was less likely to benefit from this phase.

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But had a specific bid been made for the King’s, making clear the future of a historic venue at the heart of the world’s biggest arts festival was at stake, it would have at least thrown down a challenge. That’s what’s happened anyway, with the council now going cap in hand to beg Mr Jack for a re-think.

If he turns out to be Ming the Merciful and does help, what will all those other unsuccessful bidders have to say? And some Edinburgh councillors would no doubt complain their pet ward projects are even further down the pecking order.

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It’s been known for years the King’s needed major investment; whether it’s the panto or International Festival, it’s a theatre for everyone and it would be a tragedy worthy of Shakespeare if its fate was sealed by council incompetence.