The Company of Players (CoPs) - Hertford

Planned Extention

Following the granting of planning permission for an extension to the Little Theatre in November 2022 and subsequent public communications and open days regarding this, several queries and concerns have been raised within the local community. The Company of Players (CoPs) therefore issues this update to clarify a number of points raised and their historical context.

Access

The Company of Players was founded in 1962, initially without a permanent location in which to perform. In 1972, CoPs purchased the whole plot of land now known as Christchurch Place, formerly the site of Christ Church, which included the building previously used as a school. The money needed to convert the building from a Victorian schoolroom to a new community theatre was raised through the sale of the adjacent land, on which five houses were subsequently built. The theatre was well established and conversion permission gained before any house in Christchurch Place was actually built.

Access to the theatre building is now, and has been since the conversion, via two routes: steps from Balfour Street and a pedestrian pathway from Port Vale. The pathway runs along the front of the houses and, whilst each house owns the section of path immediately in front of their respective garden, the theatre’s users and each of the households shares a right of way along the whole path. This agreement was drawn up when the land was sold, with the primary aim to allow all six properties to exist in harmony with each other.

Neither of the two access routes have ever been officially designated as the primary entrance to the theatre site, though planning correspondence from the Council in the mid-90s referred to the footpath as the main approach to the theatre. When postcodes were first introduced, the Little Theatre was allocated two different postcodes and both have been in use ever since. Licensing and other official Council correspondence has been addressed to the Christchurch Place address for at least a decade. Users of the building continue to be free to use whichever entrance best suits their route.

Aims and objectives

Originally a members’ club theatre, CoPs has continued to evolve and develop over its history into a publicly-accessible community amateur theatre company. In recent years, CoPs has acquired charity status, with its stated objects being “to educate the public in the dramatic and operatic arts and the further development of public appreciation and taste in the said arts”, and all its activities must be related to furthering these aims. The Company continues to be a not-for-profit organisation, with all income reinvested into the future of the Company and its assets, and is now regulated by the Charity Commission. There is therefore no prospect nor possibility of CoPs or its Little Theatre becoming a commercial building or enterprise, as opposed to operating for public benefit. Further detail can be found in the Company’s constitution.

For some time, CoPs has been aware of the need to modernise and improve its facilities. Our building is over 150 years old and some of its facilities have not been upgraded since the original conversion more than forty years ago. In particular, access for less able patrons and volunteers is currently extremely limited. Planning permission was therefore sought and granted for “a single storey extension to provide an enlarged foyer, new and improved sanitary accommodation, additional backstage facilities, and improved access and facilities for disabled persons”. All the planning materials, including the application and all related documents, are still available to view on the Council’s website via the link above.

The plans do not increase the size nor the capacity of the auditorium. The extension would give the Company greater flexibility to rehearse more than one production simultaneously, increasing the potential number of productions per year, as well as improving its suitability for social and community events. However, none of these activities represent new or changed usage, and all rely on the availability of our volunteer cast, crew, front of house and management teams. Seasons in years past have featured more than the current five annual productions, and members’ events such as film nights and quizzes can be found in our archives across the history of the Company. Supporting documents to our planning application note increased availability for “supporting community groups (for example the Scouts and the Lower Bengeo Residents’ Association)”. The planning department took into account the building’s location in a local conservation area, and noted that “the application supports the Bengeo Neighbourhood Plan … Committee were also pleased to note the eco-friendly design and improved accessibility”.

Community engagement

The requirements of the Council’s formal planning application process were fully complied with by the Company at all times, in good faith. However, it later became apparent that the community consultation undertaken by the Council within this process was not as extensive as the Company had anticipated. CoPs therefore wishes to publicly apologise to the residents of Christchurch Place that prior opportunities to inform and consult with them were not offered. The Company has since begun to take steps to improve communication and consultation with the local community and is committed to continuing to do so.

All feedback from local residents, members, audiences and other stakeholders is welcomed and will be considered wherever possible. We recognise the right of any concerned parties to express their views publicly, and apologise for the use of language in previous correspondence which may have implied otherwise. The Company considers it has a duty to its volunteers, members and patrons to provide clarifying information in response, such as this article.

Actions that have recently been taken in response to such feedback include strengthening our existing recommendations to audiences to utilise public car parks wherever possible and to consider our local residents when leaving the building, as well as ensuring access to our newsletter for our immediate neighbours. We will continue to take further steps to better engage with the wider community, including holding open days on a more regular basis following on from those already held earlier this year.

Please do not hesitate to contact us with any questions, comments or concerns – you can use our contact form or email info@cops.org.uk.