‘Let down’ Preston takes back control of Guild Hall

The administrator appointed to run Preston Guild Hall has formally agreed to forfeit the venue’s long leasehold due to “significant breaches of the lease agreement”.

The decision by Beverley Budsworth of The Business Debt Advisor returns the 1970s-built hall to the ownership of Preston City Council with immediate effect.

The venue’s Charter Theatre and Grand Hall are currently closed and will remain so until further notice, with any enquiries regarding previously advertised events needing to be put to the administrator. The entertainment complex unexpectedly closed at the end of May, although the retail and leisure units at ground floor remain open.

Since 2014 the 999-year leasehold on the Guild Hall has been held by Lancashire entrepreneur Simon Rigby, who bought it from a cash-strapped council in 2014, announcing a £1m revamp. Plans designed by the Frank Whittle Partnership to improve the leisure offer were approved in 2016.

Rigby, a serial entrepreneur, currently holds 108 directorships according to Companies House. The Rigby Organisation as outlined in its website comprises four divisions: property, hospitality, energy and care.

Recent ventures include building up the BetSid bookmaking chain in Lancashire, selling out in February this year. In the same month, he released Kirkham restaurant Vittorias to Rural Inns amid a raft of changes within his business holdings that largely reflect a move away from consumer-facing business.

A deal to take over the Guild Hall has been in the works throughout this year with experienced operator VMS Live – which runs Manchester Academy and Eventim Olympia among others – to take on the Guild Hall, but negotiations have dragged, leading Rigby to announce the venue’s temporary closure at the end of May, with administration following a week later.

Rigby this week told the Lancashire Post that he wanted to step aside from the Guild Hall, but that he would seek a new operator through charity The Guild Foundation, with the charity appointing Rigby vehicle GF Preston Ltd to run the venue in the meantime – a move that the administrator declined to recognise the validity of.

Matthew Brown, the leader of the council, took the “Special Urgency Decision” to reclaim Preston Guild Hall with agreement from chair of overview and scrutiny at the council, Conservative group leader Sue Whittam, along with chief executive Adrian Phillips.

Brown said: “Over recent weeks it has become abundantly clear that it was necessary for the City Council to intervene and regain control of the property. We are absolutely committed to finding the best possible solution for the future of the Guild Hall, and our ultimate hope is that it is back up and running as an entertainment venue as soon as possible.

“As I have said before, the decision to transfer the Guild Hall into Mr Rigby’s ownership was the only viable decision we could make at the time, with the information we had and the stark financial situation we were in. We acted in good faith and have been let down by the unacceptable behaviour of Mr Rigby.

“As we move forward, we are putting considerable effort into supporting the re-opening and successful future of Preston Guild Hall, but can only work within the current budget position of the Council. We continue to be ambitious for the role of the Guild Hall within the city and are confident for the extensive regeneration that is currently taking place across Preston.”

Among the events that were supposed to take place this month include Grand Masters of Darts and UB40. The University of Central Lancashire has moved graduation events to alternative venues.

Cllr Sue Whittam, leader of Preston Conservatives, said: “It is disappointing that taking this decision was necessary, but it is clearly the right step for Preston City Council to take. We are united in our commitment to find an affordable solution for Preston Guild Hall that meets the needs of the city.”

Preston City Council said that as the forfeiture renders all sub-leases of outlets within the Guild Hall null and void, the council is committed to working with the current tenants to ensure a seamless transition and minimal disruption. It warned that “special measures may need to be applied to any tenant or organisation linked to Simon Rigby”. The council added that in line with the administrator’s position, it does not recognise any “supposed lease linking Mr Rigby’s charity to Preston Guild Hall”.

The Rigby Organisation declined to comment.

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