Inquiry into bid to keep theatre closes with 'thin' evidence claim

The final day of the public inquiry on Titchfield Festival Theatre\'s planning appeal, which was held virtually. Pictured are planning inspector Nancy Thomas (left), Emma Dring (top right) and Megan Thomas KC (bottom right)
The final day of the public inquiry on Titchfield Festival Theatre\'s planning appeal, which was held virtually. Pictured are planning inspector Nancy Thomas (left), Emma Dring (top right) and Megan Thomas KC (bottom right)

A public inquiry which will determine the future of a Hampshire theatre space has heard final arguments from the parties contesting the appeal.

Titchfield Festival Theatre launched a final roll of the dice to try to keep the facility open.

This came after Fareham Borough Council issued an enforcement notice against the charity.

The authority said the 450-seat Arden theatre at the site in St Margaret’s Lane was opened without planning permission.

Nancy Thomas from the Planning Inspectorate has overseen the inquiry, which was held over the past week and closed on Wednesday, May 22.

Legal representatives for the council and the theatre organisation both gave closing statements which lasted more than an hour.

Emma Dring, representing the council, said the theatre’s planning expert was “apparently unfamiliar” with key issues arising in the appeal.

She said the local authority presented clear and compelling evidence from professional witnesses.

Ms Dring said: “Given the stakes for the appellant, the evidence they have gathered and presented to support their case has been surprisingly thin.

“Inexplicably they have not even attempted to carry out a sequential test.”

She added: “The overall impression at the end of the inquiry is that the appellant’s case has not come up to proof.

“They’re heavily reliant on their last-minute fall-back position.

“No doubt recognising the reality that the development plan is pointing very clearly in one direction but that fall-back position is fraught with legal complexity and there are significant hoops it needs to jump through before it can be considered a material consideration.”

The Titchfield Festival Theatre complex in St Margaret’s Road includes two other performing spaces in addition to the Arden, with the Oak and Acorn. The charity also has access to the Great Barn in  Mill Lane.

Megan Thomas KC, representing Titchfield Festival Theatre, said the fall-back was an “extremely weighty material consideration”. This plan involved reducing the size of the Arden and moving it into an area of the site where it could operate under existing lawful use permissions.

The barrister said when she took the case on she could not understand “why the council seemed so anti-Titchfield Theatre”.

She told the inquiry: “It is with some bemusement that the council has got itself into a position whereby it’s attacking a well-loved, independent, successful, not-for-profit, community-based charity on the basis of an eight-year-old written ministerial statement which was clearly aimed at protecting the green belt and discouraging Gypsies and Travellers to set up on green belt land.”

The theatre’s representative added: “It would be in the public interest to take control and grant planning permission subject to conditions and the unilateral undertaking.”