An amateur theatre chief is embroiled in a planning row with his Hampshire council after he sanctioned the covert construction of a 450-seat venue without permission.
Kevin Fraser, the artistic director at Titchfield Festival Theatre (TFT), approved the creation of a new £1.7 million performing arts hub despite two previous applications being rejected by Fareham council.
Since 2010 the theatre has staged productions from a converted barn containing two auditoriums capable of seating 100 and 200 people respectively.
But with hundreds of children using the venue every week and a busy programme of up to 40 shows a year, bosses decided to expand the venue to include a third area with a capacity of more than 450 people.
Proclaiming itself as Europe’s largest community theatre, land previously granted planning permission as a storage area was chosen to build a new venue, the Arden.
The 67-year-old former Foreign Office diplomat said legal advice was taken before TFT pressed ahead with its long-planned expansion.
Performances have been staged throughout the summer following its completion, while a nativity play and Robin Hood pantomime, featuring Mr Fraser, are included in its upcoming festive programme.
But the new venue’s long-term future has been thrown into uncertainty after Fareham borough council officials served Mr Fraser with an enforcement notice requiring the new theatre to close by Feb 29 unless an appeal is lodged.
One councillor said the decision to build a new 450-seat venue without planning permission “beggars belief”, adding the space was only intended to be used for storage.
But Mr Fraser, 67, who was based in Chile while working as a diplomat in the 1970s, insisted the site’s long-term use for community theatre meant planning permission was not necessary.
Describing Fareham council as packed full of “Scrooges” and “Grinches”, he claimed the TFT had fallen victim to a “vindictive vendetta” by Conservative members who are scared of competition between it and a council-run theatre expected to open next year.
“Titchfield Festival Theatre is an incredibly successful community theatre company supported by thousands throughout the borough and wider area,” Mr Fraser told The Telegraph.
“It is the largest community theatre in Europe as well as being the only fully sustainable green theatre in Europe.
“Fareham borough council clearly don’t want competition, they want to negate it. There are 20 theatres in Shaftesbury Avenue in London – why can’t we have two in Fareham?”
“We are not going anywhere and will still continue. But we are being pestered and hounded – and at Christmas, hence why I call them the Grinches and Scrooges.”
Mr Fraser said the row was likely to feature in the upcoming Robin Hood pantomime and that he was ready to challenge any attempts to close the new venue.
“There might be a few jokes about ‘can you put that statue there? Have you got planning permission?’
“That kind of thing, to keep the story alive. We are here, we are not going away.
“Even if they win and close the Arden down, we still have our two other theatres at the front. We are not going anywhere and will still continue,” he added.
The new venue was covertly constructed after attempts to receive approval from councillors proved unsuccessful.
A planning application for a 567-seat theatre was rejected in 2019, which was followed up by another rejected application later that year.
Building work on the new venue began in August last year.
In a statement Fareham borough council said it had been alerted to the new development earlier in the year and that productions had continued to be staged and advertised despite the risk of enforcement action.
“Officers visited the site and met with representatives of the theatre company who explained that work was underway to create a new 450-seat theatre,” it said.
“Officers were shown around the development which includes a newly excavated underground orchestra pit beneath the stage and a complex of backstage changing rooms and rehearsal areas.
“The new theatre has been created in a space which had previously been granted planning permission for use as storage.
“Council officers warned the company that, without planning permission being obtained, the new venue was at risk of enforcement action being taken.
“Despite this warning, various public performances have taken place with shows being advertised on the theatre company website throughout December and well into 2024.”
Titchfield Festival Theatre was initially established at Titchfield Abbey in 2001 with one of its founding objectives to advance the theory that William Shakespeare lived and worked in southern Hampshire.
Shakespeare is believed to have links to the village through an alleged affair with the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, who sponsored the writer for a time.
“Our whole raison d’etre is that Titchfield we believe was the area where Shakespeare spent his lost years,” Mr Fraser said.