Why Norwich’s biggest youth charity collapsed now
PUBLISHED: 06:35 25 April 2020 | UPDATED: 16:16 25 April 2020
It helped thousands of young people and became Norwich’s biggest live music venue, but the Open Youth Trust had struggled for years to make ends meet before it finally closed this month.
It took six years and £12m for the Open Youth Trust to transform the former Barclays bank on Bank Plain into the city’s biggest venue and charity headquarters.
The Open’s chairman, Russ Dacre, remembers stepping into the 1920s building in 2003 with its high ceilings and vaults and seeing the old banking desks still in place.
“I felt it would be a great space to set up an alternative to the drug and binge drinking culture at the time,” he recalled.
The idea was to turn the old bank into a drug-free venue and build on the work of the SOS Bus on Prince of Wales Road by carrying out youth work.
It would go on to train 900 young people and house a climbing wall, dance studio, gym and cafe.
•Starting the music
After the building work was complete in 2009, it started holding alcohol-free youth nights. In 2011, needing to find other income, the charity applied for a licence to hold live music and sell alcohol.
Rick Lennox was the man brought in to turn the building into a music venue.
“I had some really good years there,” he said. “It was always going to be difficult because the building had no legacy as a music venue, but we did well.
“We got bands like Belle and Sebastian, The Darkness and Public Service Broadcasting.”
“I don’t think any shows will disappear from Norwich from the closure, but I feel sorry for staff still there as I know how much they cared. The big loss to the city will be the charity.”
•Paying the bills
The Open relied on the support of the Lind Trust, the charitable organisation set up by Russ’s father Graham to help pay its bills each year. The Lind Trust had bought the building in 2003 and the Open paid peppercorn rent to it.
The charity hoped to become sustainable and in 2016 it gave itself three years to breakeven, but each year it made a loss.
Its auditor signed off its annual accounts every year on the proviso that the Lind Trust would keep supporting it, plugging shortfalls of tens of thousands of pounds.
Russ Dacre said the Lind Trust had already put in around £750,000 in the last year.
Between 2009 and 2018, the last year accounts were published, the charity’s reserves from almost £1.7m to £128,000.
“It was simple economics in the end,” Mr Dacre said. “With Covid-19 we lost events which was about £400,000 gone with immediate effect.
“The closure has been a horrendous process to go through.
“Really hard decisions have had to be made and I hope we have made the right decisions.”
•‘A poisoned chalice’
Despite paying a peppercorn rent, the bills and repair costs on the Grade-II listed building were huge.
In 2018, the charity paid £93,000 for energy; water and rates were another £20,000 and maintenance was £80,000.
“It just took one thing to break or for a leak and that could potentially set you back thousands,” one former manager, who did not wish to be named, said.
“A small selection of managers always talked about how we could run the charity side from a village hall in theory and still have an impact.”
Ex-head of fundraising Grainne Buckley added: “When I was fundraising people would ask, why do you need that building?
“The building was a poisoned chalice in some respects, the bills were massive.”
But Mr Dacre said the building brought big benefits to the charity. “Everyone knew it and it built up a reputation as a venue,” he said.
“The location was ideal and it has great transport links.”
•The stress of budgets
The former manager also spoke of high pressure caused by working to tight budgets.
“I loved my job and I loved the place and what it did,” he said.
“The variety you got was really special but when I left, I said, I can’t see it being here in three years’ time.
“It was a stressful, pressured environment to work in that made many leave or be off with stress due to the financial pressure and constraints.”
The Open got several grants from the lottery which funded its youth work, but its last grant ran out this March.
Ex-head of fundraising Grainne Buckley said: “Lottery funding was going to run out, coronavirus or not, and that had been known for years.
“The main issue I found getting funding was it was viewed as a Graham Dacre and Lind Trust place so people couldn’t see why they should give us their money.
“My fundraising targets were completely unrealistic,” she added. “The stress was unbelievable, and my health suffered badly.” She left in 2018 with stress.
This newspaper is also aware of several other staff who left after signing non-disclosure agreements and therefore could not speak.
•Loss to the city
To try to pay the bills the Open also tried bringing in bigger bands and also hosted weddings but the former manager said the costs just couldn’t be met.
“There were already lots of great events spaces in Norwich,” he said. “We had a lot of competition from UEA, Epic and St Andrews Hall.
“The live music market is really hard. Most bands went to the UEA as it was known on the scene and had the student market.”
Reviews of the Open as a venue on Facebook are positive but there were some complaints that the bar was poorly staffed at events.
“It makes me sad to know a lot of people there who have lost their jobs and are going to struggle,” the manager added.
“I just hope it doesn’t become flats because it would be such a loss to the city if it is no longer a public space.”
The building is in the hands of the Lind Trust and the storage business which Open operated at the venue, called Closed Limited, is likely to be sold as it turns a profit.
Mr Dacre hopes the Open will leave a legacy for Norwich. “Culture for young people has completely changed (since 2009),” he said.
“It will be interesting to see what comes out of the closure. The team has reacted in a really positive way and a number of organisations could spring forward from this.”
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