DEMONSTRATORS gathered in Billingham yesterday to protest at plans to demolish the town's theatre and replace it with a supermarket.

Stockton Borough Council wants to pull down Billingham Forum - which incorporates a theatre, ice rink and swimming pool - and sell the land to a supermarket chain to fund a massive regeneration project in the town centre.

Today the council's vision of a new-look Billingham will be unveiled to the public at an exhibition at the Forum.

But members of Stockton Stage Society handed out leaflets yesterday urging people to oppose the plans. Barry Gale, 65, said there would be no theatre in the Stockton area if it was pulled down. He said: "This is a wonderful theatre and we want to keep it. We need a proper theatre."

Lesley Batty said the society and many other local drama groups would have nowhere to stage productions if the building was destroyed.

"We've already given a 1,000 signature petition to the council," she said.

"But the people of Stockton and Thornaby haven't been asked for their opinions."

The plans for a leisure and learning complex at John Whitehead Park do include a small theatre area, as well as a library, crche, exhibition area and further education facilities.

But Stockton council's strategic arts advisor, Reuben Kench, admitted the new theatre would not be an adequate replacement for the Forum.

"At the moment the plans don't include a like-for-like replacement of the existing theatre and I think that's a great shame," he said.

"However, the reality is that there isn't the funding available to create that."

He said the council was unable to find the £8.5m needed to restore the Forum.

The funding for the town centre regeneration project - to include a new ice arena, swimming pool and leisure centre - will come from National Lottery sports grants, the Government's Single Regeneration Budget and money from the sale of the Forum land.

An exhibition of the plans is at Billingham Forum today from noon to 6pm, tomorrow from noon to 8pm, Friday from noon to 6pm and Saturday from 10am to 2pm. Next week, it moves to the Billingham Regeneration Office, in Queensway, and on March 6 it will be at Bede College.