After Medinbrand’s planning application to convert the building into flats and a gym was turned down by the planning committee last year, Medinbrand decided to appeal this decision at a public inquiry. The inquiry was supposed to take place last December but illness meant it was postponed until the 8th of January. While it was originally expected to take 2 to 3 days it was also decided that due to the quantity of evidence being presented the rescheduled inquiry would in fact take 3 to 4 days.
On the 8th of January I attended the first day of the inquiry at the Mansion House in Clifton. Medinbrand (the appellants) aimed to defend their plans and convince the Inspector that Bristol Council had made the wrong judgement in blocking the application while Bristol Council had to defend their previous decision. To add a further element to proceeding the Keep Cinema Local Campaign (who had campaigned for the building to stay open back in 2001 and who have recently reformed to protect the building against this latest planning application) decided to present their case against the plans using the rule 6 policy. “Rule 6 status” refers to Rule 6 of the Inquiries Procedure Rules.
We – the Whiteladies Picture House ltd – had decided that we did not want to speak at the inquiry as the inquiry should focus on the suitability of the flat and gym application for its own merits and shouldn’t take alternative uses (such as our proposed art centre and community cinema) into consideration. As we obviously have a vested interest in the current plans not being accepted we believed that the heritage and importance of the building was better defended by Bristol Council and the Keep Cinema Local campaign.
Day one of the inquiry started with the opening statements from all three parties -Medinbrand stating that their plans are part of the natural progression of the buildings history, while the council and Keep cinema local stated that the plans where not detailed enough to prove that the heritage would be preserved. The also believed that the changes to the interior and front facade would seriously compromise the building. As if to confirm these fears it was at this point that Medinbrand submitted new drawings to correct a previous mistake that had resulted in one of the supporting walls for the tower being left out.
After the opening statements – Edward Nash, the expert witness for Bristol Council took the stand. In his statement he said that the owners had never seriously investigated the charitable options for the building and suggested that if they seriously wanted the building to be brought back into use they should have considered these options in more detail. He gave examples of other cinemas and art centres that have had a similar development to the one we are proposing. He also raised real fears about the nature of the proposed development and the level of harm caused to the building over the last 10 years.
Before Mister Nash could be cross examined, Mayor George Ferguson arrived wishing to make a statement – due to his busy schedule he was allowed to take the stand immediately. In a brief statement he explained that he didn’t believe the flats and gym were a suitable development and that English Heritage and the Bristol Council conversation officer had failed in their duty to protect the building.
Once Mr Ferguson had left Mr Nash returned to the stand and was cross examined by the appellants lawyer. Much of the cross examination seemed to focus on the fact that the charitable model that Mr Nash was referring to was not viable – their main evidence for this was an extract from the initial business plan I had written for the Picture House 3 years ago. As this information was out of date and shown out of context I was livid that it was being used as evidence against any form of theatrical use for the building – especially as we have always tried to communicate how our plans have been developing. The issue of the covenant was also raised as a reason why no theatre or cinema project could go ahead.
At the start of the second day of the inquiry (Wednesday) I requested permission to speak on Thursday in order to counteract the misleading information presented by the appellant. The inspector agreed to the request but on the request of the appellants lawyers I was asked to submit my statement by 5pm that day so they could consider the implications overnight. I therefore missed all of day 2 however I believe that the main focus was analysis of the proposed sound proofing between the gym and the residential areas.
Early on day 3 I was called up to speak – my statement was still rather rushed however I think I was able to demonstrate that our plans had been moving forward over the last couple of years, that we have made real process and the only real obstacle is the current high asking price for the building. I was also able to present the email from Rupert Gavin, CEO of Odeon, in which he states that he is willing to waiver the covenant for a not for profit/charitable business. (For the rest of the inquiry the issue of the covenant as an ongoing obstacle was barely mentioned).
After I spoke – Nick Brook, the agent in charge of the marketing of the building, was called to speak. During cross examination I believe that Bristol Council and Keep cinema local were able to demonstrate serious failing in the marketing of the building over the last 10 years as well as gaining confirmation from Nick that the building had fallen into disrepair during Medinbrand’s custodianship. two other elements were also very interesting:
Firstly it seems that the building was previously on the market with a 99 year lease on a minimum of a peppercorn rate – if this offer had still been available when we approached Nick we could have secured the building three years ago.
Secondly it seems that the asking price placed upon the derelict parts of the building is far higher than they have been valued at. If the asking price was closer to the valuation – we could very well have afforded to purchase the freehold of the building with loan funding rather then working on the, harder to obtain, grant funding.
With this new knowledge we are very keen to speak to Medinbrand again about possible lease options however we have been told that no offers will be considered until the verdict of the inquiry is announced.
Day 4 was supposed to be the last day of the inquiry. Unfortunately I missed most of day 4 due to work commitments – however when I arrived in the afternoon they were still hearing evidence from the appellants architects. Bristol council were able to demonstrate very nicely that while the architects had claimed the plans were reversible (and so any damage to the heritage asset was temporary) the logistics and cost involved in securing all parts of the building and then returning them to their current appearance would mean that, in reality, the project was not reversible. By the end of the day closing statements and discussions regarding ‘conditions’ still needed to be heard, so it was decided that the inquiry would reconvene on the 28th of January for 1 more day.
Once again I was unable to attend much of the day – however I arrived to here the closing statements – when I arrived the room was packed with members of the public who had turned up to show support for this much loved building. I was very impressed by Bristol Councils stance as they really seem to have understood the historical and social importance of the building to the local community. Once all the statements had been heard I think many people were hoping to hear the result of the inquiry, however the Inspector will need another month to consider the facts and so we can expect the verdict in late February or early March.
As soon as I have any more news I will post it on the news section of the website as well as on facebook and Twitter.