Letters between English Heritage and Odeon campaigner Richard

Dr S Thurley
Chief Executive
English Heritage

1 Waterhouse Square
138/142 Holborn
London
EC1N 2ST

Dear Simon

I write to express my disdain at the decision of your organisation to approve the plans submitted by Wakefield surveyors Spawforths on behalf of Langtree-Artisan and Yorkshire Forward to demolish the Odeon Cinema in Bradford City Centre to replace it with New Victoria Place, a development of office and hotel space.

I am, frankly, astounded that the Government’s statutory advisory body on the Historic Environment would sanction the demolition of the last remaining 1930s Super Cinema in the country, located in UNESCO’s first ever City of Film, especially given the unique visual relationship between the domes of the Odeon and those of the adjacent Grade I listed Alhambra theatre.

Representatives of the City Council have publicly stated that, despite over 2,000 objections from people residing in Bradford and beyond, the change in the stance of English Heritage was the deciding factor in deciding to grant planning permission for the scheme. I simply cannot understand the mentality of an organisation ostensibly dedicated to the preservation of our historic environment sanctioning such wanton civic vandalism on a national treasure.

This is an error of judgement of enormous magnitude, caused either by the incompetence of officers of English Heritage or seriously misguided policy. Either way, I cannot bring myself to support in any way an organisation that will approve such a demolition, and so will ensure, at great personal pain, that I do not patronise any paid-for attraction owned or operated by English Heritage, or support any businesses occupying English Heritage owned properties, or contribute to English Heritage’s revenue streams in any way, until such time this ridiculous advice is revoked and a full and unequivocal apology made to the City of Bradford and its people.

Yours sincerely,

Richard K

***

Dear Mr K,

I am sorry to learn of the level of distress which our views on the New Victoria Place scheme in Bradford have caused you. I can assure you that our position was reached after full consideration of the conservation issues. Out conclusion was that the revised scheme strikes a good balance between the desirability of preserving and enhancing heritage assets and securing much needed regeneration benefits for Bradford City Centre and its people. I enclose a copy of our advice letter, which sets out in some detail our position and how we arrived at it.

We recognise the communal values which the former Odeon embodies for many people and I am well aware of the strength of feeling locally. We regret the loss of the building, but the planning and financial arguments justified the demolition within the terms of Government policy and guidance. We hope that the use of decorative motifs from the Odeon, the proposed reuse of fittings, the echo of its curved form and the introduction of themed artworks will reflect this historical association and local affinity with the building.

I do hope that when you have read our advice in full you will reconsider your decision to boycott English Heritage. We need people who are passionate about England’s’historic environment to support our work. Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

Yours sincerely

Simon Thurley

***

Dear Simon

Thank you for your letter dated 17 November 2009. I was pleased to receive such a swift and personal response to my correspondence, but trust that you will not be too surprised to learn that I am not quite so pleased with its contents.

I had in fact already read Kathryn Gibson’s letter to Stewart Currie, that being the document upon which my complaint was based. In view of this, I feel it prudent to highlight my specific concerns with respect to the advice Ms Gibson gave vicariously on behalf of English Heritage to Mr Currie.

1.Impartiality

It is my understanding from Ms Gibson’s letter and subsequent statements made by English Heritage that English Heritage acted in an advisory capacity to the developer or its representatives or sponsor during the formulation of their revised Application for Planning Permission. Quite aside from any concerns that this might have led to a ‘hoops-to-be-jumped-through-to-sanction-the-demolition-of-the-Odeon’ scenario, I believe that acting in such a capacity represents a prejudicial interest and as such precludes English Heritage from making an unbiased recommendation to the Council.

In other words, once English Heritage have provided advice to the developer, I believe it to be highly unlikely that they would, having provided that advice, then recommend to the local planning authority that the Application be declined, else risk accusations of providing poor advice to the developer.

2.That the planning and financial arguments justified the demolition

The leisure circuit in Bradford has changed significantly over the past eight years – a fact to which I can personally testify having patronized it over much of that time. Pubs, clubs and other leisure venues have gradually moved away from the traditional areas of provision such as Cheapside, Manor Row and Manningham Lane, and are now focused on Market Street, Centenary Square, Great Horton Road, Chester Street and Morley Street. Viewed on a map, these establishments, along with the Alhambra Theatre, form a ‘leisure arc’ flowing from the northern end of Market Street to the University.

The former Odeon Cinema building lies almost exactly in the centre of this arc. A commercial development such as New Victoria Place is entirely incongruous with the leisure base of this part of the City Centre, and will effectively create two much smaller and distinct leisure districts, which will render the City’s leisure economy damaged beyond repair. How any planning or financial argument in this statement of fact justifies the Odeon’s demolition is completely and utterly beyond me.

3.That the benefits of the proposal outweigh the harm that it would cause

I am not, as Bradford Council might like to imply, an ‘old sentimentalist’. I am twenty-four, and though I did not experience the privilege of pre-Wardley Bradford, I am not against the march of progress. I fully understand that regeneration is needed badly in Bradford, but this development is regeneration in name only. In truth, I don’t believe that additional office and hotel space is a bad idea, and don’t think that New Victoria Place is particularly poorly designed or a poor development per se, but let’s be frank: it’s not as though there is not any alternative, genuinely derelict or underused land within Bradford City Centre on which this development could be built without the need to demolish such an iconic building.

It is not as though this is just the last 1930s Art Deco Super Cinema in Bradford, or in Yorkshire. It is the last one. Full stop. This is a matter of not just local or regional, but national importance. The sheer strength of feeling about it in Bradford and beyond ought to be enough to show that something is amiss.

4.Information on the cost of repair and the viability of retaining the towers and façade, together with the evidence that alternative schemes have been considered

The Viability Report submitted with the Planning Application compiled by Colliers CRE was cursory at best. I found the report unsatisfactory as it ‘wrote off’ the possibility of leisure user simply on the basis that the two seemingly arbitrarily chosen leisure operators approached stated that they were not interested in purchasing the site, and the costs for conversion estimate supplied was based on its conversion to commercial user – including boreing windows into the building to make office space! Obviously, this was accompanied by a suitably ludicrous price tag. I do not believe that this report fully explored the viability of restoration and reuse as leisure user, especially given the additional leisure demand that such a large and important venue would attach to Bradford.

Although alternative schemes were considered, none of these involved the retention of the Odeon building sue to erroneous information about the structural condition of the building given to the entrants by Yorkshire Forward. Mistruths about the internal condition of the building haven’t been confined to Yorkshire Forward – Maud Marshall, representing Bradford Centre Regeneration, has peddled a few herself, despite no structural survey being conducted on the building until the Application for Planning Permission was made.

5.s106 Agreements

Ms Gibson recommends that s106 Agreements be sought requiring that the building not be demolished until such time as full funding for the development is in place. I am astounded that this is the only condition that English Heritage feel it prudent to attach given the building’s historic importance and iconic nature. I would have expected, at the very least, an insistence that the developer contribute financially to the continued viability of Community Theatre within the City – for examle at the Bradford Playhouse and Theatre in the Mill. However, it would appear that England’s heritage can be bought extremely cheaply from the people whose job it is, ostensibly, to protect it.

I still believe that the wrong decision was made when English Heritage chose to support this Application for Planning Permission. I would strongly urge you to conduct a full internal review into this unconscionable and unexpected recommendation.

I can assure you that my decision to make a personal boycott of English Heritage is not one that I have taken lightly, but is one by which I stand. It is a deep personal loss to be unable to visit what I regard as some of the best managed visitor attractions in the country, but will repeat what I said before: I simply cannot bring myself to financially support an organisation that will so readily permit the demolition of a national treasure. I will gladly rescind this boycott once this advice is withdrawn, and a full apology made to the people of Bradford.

I fully agree that we need people who are passionate about our historic environment – perhaps you should employ a few at your York office?

I remain, Sir
Yours sincerely

Richard K

***

Dear Mr Killip

Thank you for your letter of 23 November. There is little that I can add to my last letter. But I must vigorously refute your implications that we can be bought and our advice influenced, whether through negotiations with applicants or through section 106 deals. Under the 2004 Planning and Compensation Act we act under a legal duty to offer helpful advice to applicants. Our direct engagement with major schemes is a very effective way of of securing the best outcomes for our heritage.

We looked very carefully, on repeated occasions, at its importannce and determined that it did not merit listing. There are several comparable buildings around the country of greater interest which have been listed, not least the Grade II* New Victoria in Westminster, built in the same year by the same company.

Our staff have a passion for and a commitment to the heritage of which I am very proud. I regret that our assessment of the New Victoria Place proposals, which echoed that of the Council’s own staff, did not accord with your on or that of many local people. But I remain satisfied that our judgments were sound and note that the Secretary of State has not called-in the scheme, which has now received all formal approvals.

Yours sincerely

Simon Thurley

***

Dear Simon

I would like to apologise for the misunderstanding of my use of the verb, to buy. It was my intention to use this verb in a figurative, rather than literal, sense, and I am sorry that this is not the interpretation that you ascribed to its use. It would probably be helpful for me to be more explicit in my concerns.

In terms of impartiality, my concern is that of a conflict of interest, whether statutory or otherwise. It is completely beyond me how, once having liaised with a property developer, any organisation could then be expected to provide unbiased advice to the local planning authority without an appropriate control mechanism. The concept of a conflict of interest is widely recognised, and I am aghast that you do not recognise its potential to exist in this case. Governments cope with the separation of their legislative, executive and judicial powers through a series of checks and balances. Banks and Hedge Funds deal with conflicts of interests between their advisory and investment businesses using the Chinese Wall. If the same people that advised Langtree Artisan advised the Council, I am at a loss as to how they could maintain impartiality having advised the party that stands to gain financially from the development.

In terms of s.106 agreements (or ‘deals’, as you so elegantly describe them), my concern was not that English Heritage or any of its staff stood to gain pecuniary advantage from any that they specified ought to be demanded by the Council. My concern was, indeed is, the lack of s.106 agreements sought in consideration for the demolition of a building of the Odeon’s importance.

You state in your letter that English Heritage’s “direct engagement with major schemes is a very effective way of securing the best outcome for our heritage”. I fail to see how this is the case if this engagement facilitates the loss of that heritage.

I would refute your assertion that there are other cinemas of greater interest. This is entirely a subjective opinion and the level of interest in the Odeon building both within Bradford and beyond would suggest otherwise. Whether comparable buildings exist is arguable, but the (disputed) fact that numerous examples of a particular article exist is not in itself justification for a reduction in that number.

I am familiar with the New Victoria Theatre near Victoria and, although it was built in the same year by the same company, it was designed by a different architect, in a completely different style, and had a much smaller capacity than Bradford’s New Victoria. Bradford’s New Victoria was the largest cinema in the country outside of London at the time of its construction (and both the larger examples in London, Croydon and Elephant and Castle, are long since demolished) and remained the largest cinema in Provincial Cinematograph Theatres’ circuit for its life. All of the other cinemas that were larger than the Odeon in 1930 are now demolished.

Whilst you state that you have reached the conclusion on repeated occasions that the Odeon does not merit being added to the statutory list, I cannot help but feel that English Heritage has been remarkably inconsistent in its assessment of theatres and cinemas. In Bradford, your inspector Eric Branse-Instone asserts that, despite the interior decoration of the ballroom and towers being intact, this is not sufficient to merit listing due to its “architectural quality and completeness [being] unevenly distributed” – i.e the unaltered parts cannot be considered in isolation. However, in Carlisle, the very same inspector sought to uphold the listed status of the Lonsdale status despite the fact that it too has both altered and unaltered aspects. To quote Mr Branse-Instone: “if the special interest of the foyer is ignored, the auditorium is definitely too altered to merit listing.”

If a mixture of original features and alterations is enough to add a cinema in Carlisle to the statutory list, why can the same rules not apply to Bradford – UNESCO’s first ever and only City of Film?

You note that the “Secretary of State has not called-in the scheme, which has now received all formal approvals”. I would respectfully suggest that the reason the Secretary of State has not called-in the scheme is precisely because it has the approval of English Heritage, which implies that the scheme does not damage heritage value, a contention with which I disagree vehemently.

I would consider the apathy that much of the population feel towards our national heritage one of the biggest challenges that we face. In Bradford, there is the opposite: a city passionate about a piece of England’s cinematic history. If anything, heritage has to be about the people, and thus if English Heritage’s view does not accord with that of the people of Bradford then I would respectfully submit that it is English Heritage, and not the local people, that needs to review its position.

Yours sincerely,

Richard K

***

Richard K

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