For those who are new to the drama surrounding the fate of the Brighton Hippodrome (where have you been? Stuck on a late-running train?) let me bring you up to speed.
Last year the city council gave Alaska Development Consultants the green light to turn the former bingo hall into an eight-screen cinema operated by the Vue chain. Then a grassroots protest group called Our Brighton Hippodrome launched an online petition and inevitable Facebook campaign to block the plans. The petition attracted thousands of signatures.
On Sunday the sudden appearance of the Pavilion constituency’s parliamentary candidates standing alongside the protestors in Middle Street alerted onlookers to the fact that a bandwagons was rolling. Our Brighton Hippodrome claimed that new landlord had dropped the curtain on the cinema scheme.
But, as fans of farce will know, all was not what it seemed. At the end of the week the city council released a “clarifying statement” which was anything but. It read: “The property is still under the ownership of Kuig Property Investments Ltd. Alaska are aware that Kuig Property Investments did invite bids at the end of 2014 for the purchase of the Hippodrome, however that process has not yet concluded. We have had no involvement or dialogue with potential purchasers so unfortunately we are unable to provide comment on what their future plans for the buildings might involve.”
The theatre group’s victory looks to be Pyrrhic.
A district valuer’s report has concluded that the development of the building as a theatre would not be commercially viable, making an annual loss of £250,000.
The protesters have called the report flawed but have not said why this is so. They have yet to produce a detailed, realistic and viable scheme of their own.
Last August, Samantha Johnson, inspector of historic buildings and areas at English Heritage’s south east office wrote to Maria Bowen at the Department of Communities and Local Government to underline the fact that English Heritage believed the plans for the cinema complex represented “the best chance to conserve the heritage asset.”
She said: “In summary, English Heritage considers that the proposals, while harmful to the significance of the grade II* listed building, are justifiable in policy terms because of the public benefits they would deliver, the principle one of which is securing the future of what is now a very vulnerable building at risk.”
For a city that likes to see itself as ahead of the curve, Brighton and Hove is remarkably resistant to change. The seafront remains littered with stalled projects. Marlborough House on the Old Steine, a fine late 18th century villa, has long been empty and unloved. I may be wrong but I do not expect the new owners of the Hippodrome to unveil any dramatic ideas.
Development in the city has long been in the grip of opaque profiteers. Despite the cheers of the conservationists there is no happy ending insight.
This article was first published in The Argus on January 17.