Cultural democracy; save the cinema in Walthamstow

Walthamstow has no cinema.  An amazing statement in this day and age.   It used to have one: a 1930s outstanding example of cinema architecture. As well as films it was also a live entertainment venue: from the Beatles to the Stones.  The cinema fell foul of the out of town multiplexes and closed about 10 years ago.  The building was bought by a Brazilian evangelical organisation, (a “Church called United Church of the Kingdom of God”) who want to turn it into a “Help Centre”.  Local residents oppose the change.  There is a locally managed alternative option to create an arts based centre to help drive regeneration in Walthamstow.  The local Council rejected the application by the “Church”.  A decision widely supported by local residents. (see my report on that meeting on my previous blog)  The “Church” has appealed.  Here is my objection to their appeal sent to the government planning inspectors.

I write to oppose the appeals of the UCKG and to support the decision of the LBWF Planning Committee in refusing change of use consent.  I have been a resident of Walthamstow for over 30 years.

There is considerable professional literature and practice across the UK, Europe and indeed the world, on the important role that culture has on urban regeneration and prosperity.  The arts are in themselves a major economic sector; a community with an active arts-based sector benefits from those gains and from the reputation a vibrant
arts scene brings.   Culture in an urban context is important to attract and retain new residents and increase the
overall GDP-per capita.

As an expert member of the Selection Panel for European Capitals of Culture, nominated by the European Parliament, I am fully aware of how cities around Europe are prioritising culture in their development aspirations.

The EMD cinema is the only large scale cultural building in Walthamstow.  It has a formal heritage listing and as importantly has an informal intangible heritage reputation for its residents.  Recent decisions by UNESCO and the Council of Europe have highlighted the importance of intangible heritage and memory.   The loss of the building, if the appeal is upheld, will be irretrievable to the cultural sector and life in Walthamstow.

There is a viable proposal to use the building, with its existing use category, as a multi-purpose arts centre.  This is completely in keeping with cultural regeneration projects and one which has proven success in regeneration
programmes.  The proposal is at no cost to the public purse in these days of public sector austerity.

There is very little evidence that religious based projects, (single focus projects), contribute to the economic development of an urban community. I exclude the benefits which come from major heritage religious buildings such as cathedrals, churches, mosques and synagogues where the  attraction is overwhelmingly led by the attraction of the architectural
heritage.  That is not relevant in this case.

Religious based projects tend towards exclusivity; attracting their own followers and rarely having a broader appeal. There is of course a place for such projects but in this case not at the expense of a unique property both designed for another purpose and where there is a continuation option available.  It is unlikely based on practice elsewhere that the UCKG’s claims in impact on regeneration will be realised.

In the years they have owned the EMD cinema they have allowed to fall into decay.  If your site visit took place today you would see it boarded up for safety reasons.  The UCKG has not demonstrated, over a number  of years, that they are willing to maintain the building to a satisfactory state.

Successful regeneration projects are those which are “bottom-up”: driven by the needs of and the aspirations of local  residents.   It was telling that at the Planning Committee meeting in May 2011 that the elected representatives said
that they had no postbag requesting support for the UCKG proposals.  Indeed the clear view of local residents is
to retain the EMD building as a locally managed arts-based centre.  As such the programming is more likely to be
open to all residents of Walthamstow and Waltham Forest. This is the experience of similar centres in other parts of London. This contrasts with the exclusive appeal of a single focus based organisation.

The case put forward by UCKG does not stack up in terms of the development plans of LBWF and of the residents of Walthamstow.   Sustainable economic development will come from maintaining the current use category of the EMD enabling the viable alternative to proceed.   Cities and communities across Europe are seeking to keep their cultural assets, to develop them and expand them as one of the major avenues for sustainable and locally led development.

I urge you to reject the appeal.  There are inadequate grounds in UCKG’s case to warrant a change from the original designation and use of the EMD cinema.