Next steps for future of Margate Winter Gardens due to be approved

The Winter Gardens is currently closed Photo Frank Leppard

The next steps for the future of Margate Winter Gardens will be discussed by Thanet council Cabinet members next week.

The Grade II listed building hosted its last performance on August 7 during the Margate Soul Festival before the lease was returned to Thanet council and the doors were shut in readiness for an appraisal report on the venue and its future uses.

Some £300,000 has been allocated from the £22.2million Margate Town Deal fund for the appraisal work. However, a report to Cabinet member reveals that the original Town Deal bid included a £4million allocation for works to the historic venue but this fell down when the government Department for Levelling Up – which issued the funding – asked for more detail on long-term plans.

The report says: “At that time the council did not have a long term plan, or an understanding about all the costs. With limited funds in order to progress the required information to understand the current condition of the building, be able to articulate its demand and show its financial sustainability and viability, the Margate Town Deal Board changed the request for funding that could support this work.

“The Margate Town Deal Board also needed to reprioritise the projects due to the offer from central government being lower than the funding asked for (which had been £29m).”

Photo Frank Leppard

Currently, the site is ‘boarded up’ with security measures including screening and fencing in place on and around the building.

The measures have meant additional costs to the council of £56,270, excluding callout costs and Facility Management Officer time as keyholders. The council also expects to pay £26,000 in utility costs that were previously paid by previous tenant Your Leisure and statutory compliance and mechanical and electrical servicing costs of £108,000.

Security measures include twice daily patrols and full external patrols plus weekly void property inspections to check for damage or theft, squatters, or evidence of illegal entrance.

The report says the temporary closure does carry risks of further deterioration to the external and interior structure , including water ingress, fire, vandalism, theft, squatters, and trespassers, and 3rd party liability.

Photo Frank Leppard

Steps are now due to be taken to commission experts to complete a costed structural survey; commission a complete set of drawings for the site; identify all legal requirements and commission a team of consultants to review the night-time economy in Margate and the Winter Gardens role in that.

The report adds: “This first phase of studies will help inform the Council in order to go out to the marketplace to understand the interest for a leisure provision in the Margate Winter Gardens for the future.”

The Margate Winter Gardens has been open and supporting the Thanet community for 111 years, with the last time it was closed during World War II. The 2,000-capacity venue supports local jobs and has entertained hundreds of thousands over the years.

The building is owned by the council but was leased to Your Leisure from November 1999 until this month. Initially Your Leisure was to retain the lease which ran until 2024 but agreement was then made for an early surrender. Your Leisure’s annual rolling lease at Theatre Royal also ceased on 28 April.

The report to Cabinet members says the site needs ‘significant refurbishment.

Photo Frank Leppard

It says: “Changes in the way people use entertainment venues and their expectations on what they want from a venue, and a lack of funding to be able to deliver improvements, has seen the offer at the Winter Gardens decline over the years.

“Requiring significant investment and some repurposing of spaces to support its sustainability and viability, the council has needed to bring back the building in order to put a plan together for its future.

“At this time, neither Your Leisure Kent Ltd or the council have the capital investment required to refurbish the building in order to ensure its sustainability. The council is clear that there is a need to seek a commercial partner and a long term operator for the Winter Gardens to safeguard it for the future.

“There is a significant case for change, as it currently stands the venue does not make enough money to cover the running and maintenance costs for this large, listed building, or the ability fund the significant refurbishment costs required.

Margate Soul Festival was the last gig at the Winter Gardens before it closed Photo Frank Leppard

“It needs a new vision, investment and a new future. The Winter Gardens is a significant asset in terms of size and community interest in the heart of Margate and Cliftonville, it provides an opportunity to add to the economic opportunity, and reduce the reliance on tourism.

“The ambition for this small revenue project, as part of the border Margate Town Deal, is that success for the Winter Gardens site will help to diversify the local economy, enabling it to be more sustainable and resilient.

“Commissioning a night time economy strategy will review the role of the Winter Gardens in Margate/Thanet/Kent’s night time economy, and consider its potential future role and what it needs, in Thanet, in order to be successful for the local area. This strategy will provide an opportunity for residents to identify how they may use the Winter Gardens in the future.”

Cllr Ash Ashbee, Leader of Thanet District Council said: “With the Winter Gardens back under council management, we are in a position to determine the best future for the venue. “It is vital that we understand the structural status of the building in order to determine the commercial viability in the current market. This will also be informed through engagement with people in Thanet, and further afield, to understand how the Winter Gardens would be used in the future.

“Everything that we are doing is with the best interests of the Winter Gardens as its primary purpose. We are confident that the Winter Gardens has a fully viable future ahead.”

Thanet council says it will keep people updated on progress via its website. This will include publishing

This follows a call by Thanet Labour members, including Margate ward councillor Rob Yates, for a public meeting to share information about future plans for the venue.

A petition also raised by Cllr Yates gained some 2,000 signatures – a figure acknowledged in the report to Cabinet members as highlighting “how much local people care about the building and what it potentially has to offer.”

However, the authority says publishing information online, rather than holding a public meeting, means it can be “available to view by an unlimited audience.”

Photo Frank Leppard

A demonstration outside the council offices in July, also calling for the public meeting, attracted some 200 people.

Councillors Yates, Duckworth, Keen and Scobie called for a public meeting

Cllr Ruth Duckworth – Shadow Cabinet for Economic Development – said: “Around four months ago Labour councillors started a petition, gaining over 3,000 signatures, asking for a public meeting so the public can hear what the future is for Margate Winter Gardens.

“The venue has now been closed over a month and a Cabinet meeting is to be held on 22nd September, yet we are still to see any plan with dates as to when the proposed feasibility study will begin, how long it could take, what conversations are being had with potential commercial partners, and when the venue might possibly reopen.

“There appears to be a severe lack of urgency on this topic. We recommend anyone with an interest in the venue come along in person to watch the Cabinet meeting at 7pm at the council offices. The meeting is open to the public and should also be streamed online.

“Cabinet members are expected to agree to steps including commissioning the survey, drawings and night-time economy review.”

Cabinet members are expected to agree to the next steps at the meeting on September 22.