In 2020, during the first lockdown for the Covid-19 pandemic, Mid-Sussex District Council (MSDC) decided to close Clair Hall, in Haywards Heath. Bookings were cancelled for the longer term and signs were taken down.
Local Liberal Democrats objected to the permanent closure on the grounds that the proper process had not been followed and no consultation had been engaged in for such a major decision about a public asset. They won, and the ruling that closed it was overturned. Meanwhile, the NHS had begun using the building as a suitable venue for administering the new vaccinations against Covid-19 and they continue to use the building to this day.
Strong feelings about saving the Hall
Public feeling was high. Many objected to a popular entertainment venue being closed in such a cavalier fashion, especially as there are no local venue alternatives nearer than East Grinstead, Crawley or Brighton after The Martlets in Burgess Hill was demolished. In summer 2022, Haywards Heath held a week-long Arts Festival on a multi-venue basis, which highlighted the lack of a single suitable destination for creative pursuits in the town. It was very successful and another is being held in September 2023.
In the local elections in May 2023, the Liberal Democrats overturned the Conservative majority on both the Town and District Councils. Bringing back Clair Hall into use as a public arts venue for the town and wider area had been a big issue on the doorsteps. However, the stark realities are that the 50-year-old building has a leaking roof, defunct and energy-inefficient heating and, according to Places Leisure, who were running it alongside the local leisure centres, a financial deficit which had been accumulating for a number of years prior to closure.
Whatever the Council’s original intentions for the site, once the matter had been settled that the Hall could not be closed without further consultation, the Council hired a consultancy to investigate possible futures for it, in which the building would continue to provide a venue for the community, hopefully with some commercial success too. The initial results of this have now been shared with the new Council, and potential ways forward are being considered.
Local residents will have a say
District Councillor Anne-Marie Cooke said:
“We are mindful of the various stakeholders in Clair Hall, not least residents, MSDC who are the landlords, and the NHS who have been using and maintaining the building since 2020 and are keen to continue to use space on the premises to deliver healthcare.
“What we are also aware of, not least because we share them ourselves, are the strong positive feelings about the Hall as a community venue and entertainment destination in Haywards Heath and the current lack of any suitable alternative locally.
“We really need to get this right, and so we are opening this idea to the public and inviting them to share any concerns and, hopefully, excitement about the potential for it to become a valued community asset for the 21st century.”
“Equally important,” she continued, “is what happens meanwhile, because these are major plans that would require a long-term view and a few years to bring fully to fruition. We are looking at ways we could optimise use of the building as is, so that if possible there is some provision for arts and the community in the short term.”
Plans for a new arts venue are open to consultation
Broadly speaking, this proposal would turn Clair Hall into a flexible venue for all things arts, with an auditorium for performance, and smaller spaces for screenings, workshops and classes, potentially with a café. The site could also have some residential space, which would offset the cost of redevelopment of this prime location, and the venue would potentially be run on behalf of the Council by a separate Trust.
In the spirit of taking future customers on the journey to redevelop this centre for use, the Council has decided to open the Hall for a temporary exhibition of these possible plans and projections for the site. Local residents and anyone interested can come to the Hall on 31st August or on 7th September – see opening times below – to view these and to comment.
Given the strength of local feeling about the future of Clair Hall, it is hoped that the momentum to redevelop it as an arts venue will continue.
Clair Hall is on Perrymount Road in Haywards Heath and will be open for viewing the plans on:
Thursday 31st August between 4.30-5.30pm and 6.30-7.30pmcafé
Thursday 7th September between 2.30-3.30pm, 4.30-5.30pm and 6.30-7.30pm
Alison Rees is writing in a personal capacity.