William Burdett-Coutts: Don't bring curtain down on Assembly as we know it

Fringe stalwart William Burdett-Coutts makes a last-ditch plea not to replace George Street theatre spaces with shops and an eatery

On December 13, the doors of the Assembly Rooms will close for a building project conceived by Edinburgh City Council. When they reopen in 2012 the building will have been transformed. As you look at the building, the ground floor frontage will have been turned into shops - the likes of Ted Baker and Muji. Go round the back of the building to Rose Street and you will be able to enter a "fine dining restaurant" - the likes of Jamie Oliver. What will be left for public use will be the two upstairs spaces, the Music Hall and Ballroom, which you will be able to rent for 3300 a day.

You might ask what's so wrong with this if it assures the future of the building, which is the council's point of view.

However, from the start the whole process around the future of the Assembly Rooms has been misguided. It has been dreamed up internally at the council without any serious consideration for the views of the key stakeholders, including the public, current users of the building and the main arts organisations in the city.

Assembly Theatre was given a copy of the Business Plan in 2007 and at the time some of the key venues in Edinburgh, including the Festival Theatre, Queen's Hall, Royal Lyceum Theatre and Traverse, got together to review this. We took back to the council a set of points to show the plan was fundamentally flawed - poorly researched and lacking evidence to support its key assumptions.

The first mistake is not to respect the building. From an architectural point of view it faces a major change. It will become a set of separate entities. Each shop at the front will be separated from the building and entered from the street. The Supper Room and Edinburgh Suite will be isolated as the restaurant, and the upstairs and downstairs will not act in conjunction.

The wonderful thing about the place during the Festival is that the entire building functions as a unit, with each bit contributing to the other. The impact on the Festival is terrible. Assembly Theatre will lose four key theatres: the Edinburgh Suite, Wildman Room, Supper Room and West Drawing Room, along with our Club Bar. These rooms tend to be where we nurture the strongest artistic work and at the last Festival 68,500 people saw shows in them - half the audience of the Edinburgh International Festival.

Assembly Theatre is an integral element of the Fringe. Our guiding principle is to create the best possible programme, which to date has included pretty much every major theatre company in Scotland, an incredible number of international shows and many comedy names that are now famous on TV. In the time we have operated the building five million people have seen shows with us.

Why does this matter? Because Edinburgh has something unique in the Festival - the greatest gathering of arts and entertainment in the world.

Shops can't provide this. Which is why most city planners in the country look on culture as an absolutely key cornerstone to any civic centre.

Being in the centre of the New Town, the Assembly Rooms should be kept as a beacon to attract people to the area. According to Fringe figures, Assembly Theatre generates about 19m of visitor spend in Edinburgh each year.

Assembly Theatre has proposed an alternative way of saving the Assembly Rooms. The council's plan involves spending 9.6m on upgrading and changing the building. Based on figures they have provided we understand that the basic refurbishment and improvements to the building could be done for 4.6m; 6m of the money is coming from the council borrowing money off themselves to be repaid from earnings, 3m is from council funds and 600k is from Heritage Lottery and Historic Scotland.

Assembly's argument is to spend the smaller amount of money and on top of this we have offered to run the building on a year-round basis, building on the existing users and bringing in new events and we would repay the 1m loan over ten years.

At a time of significant cuts surely a cheaper alternative is the logical solution.

We started a public petition at www.savetheassemblyrooms.com and in the first day over 1000 people signed. We expect the number to grow significantly.

We advocate respecting the Assembly Rooms' history and building on what people know works in the building, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater to create shops with limited public purpose or appeal.

We are told that it's too late for the council to change its position. But surely it's never too late to take a sensible decision.

William Burdett-Coutts is artistic director of Assembly Theatre


THE city council has defended its 9 million-plus overhaul of the A-listed venue as the best way of securing its long-term future.

Two shops would be created facing on to George Street and a ground-floor restaurant would open at the back of the building in order to help it generate more income.

Steve Cardownie, the council's festivals and events champion, has turned on the critics of the proposals, saying: "This is pure scaremongering.

The refurbishment of the Assembly Rooms will guarantee the building's future as one of the most sensational events venues in the city."