PLANS to revive a historic East Lancashire theatre have been set back by the finding of asbestos in the circle, upper circle and across the main auditorium.

The discovery of the deadly dust spread in the main seating area of the Burnley Empire after vandalism to panels at the back of ‘the gods’ forced the cancellation of tours of the Victorian building on Sunday.

The trust seeking to bring the 124-year-old theatre back into use had planned to open it up as part of the National Heritage Open Days festival.

However surveyors working inside the Cow Lane building identified asbestos in a number of areas.

The panels boxing off benches in the circle had been badly damaged by vandals who broke into the building some months ago and the surveyors confirmed they were asbestos insulation boards and debris and dust was scattered about the circle, balcony and stalls of the theatre.

Open day ticketholders will be unable to go inside the building as planned but an alternative event from 11am to 3pm on Sunday hosted by the One Sixty café on St James Street. It will allow visitors to meet Burnley Empire Trust bosses to talk about the project and view new photographs, copies of the original plans and unseen video footage.

James Woolgrove, project safety advisor, said: “Unfortunately the actions of a few people before BET took ownership has now led to the building being unsafe for the public to entre at this time.”

Survey work continues in uncontaminated areas and plans are being drawn up to decontaminate the building, repair the roof and stop rain from entering.

Sophie Gibson, the trust’s chair, says, “We are all disappointed by the news of the recent findings but safety of the public and all those working on the building are of paramount importance.

“This is a setback but it will not stop the project. We knew we would find asbestos but this is a bit sooner than we anticipated and not where we expected.

“We had factored this into our costs and plans but await full details from the surveyors."

Cllr Charlie Briggs, leader of Burnley Council, said: “The Empire is as special place to me. I spent much of my childhood there when it was a cinema. Hopefully this is just a minor setback and the council will do what it can to help the trust.”

The Trust is now planning a 125th birthday event to at Burnley Football Club.