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Grade II status could save Mecca Bingo building in Ashford

Campaigners hoping to save a former Mecca Bingo building from partial demolition have lodged an application to protect the site.

The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) has written to Historic England calling for the landmark Lower High Street spot in Ashford to be given Grade II-listed status.

It would mean the 1930s building - which faces being partly knocked down under Ashford Borough Council’s plan for the site - could not be demolished, extended or significantly altered without special approval.

Former Mecca Bingo. Picture: Barry Goodwin
Former Mecca Bingo. Picture: Barry Goodwin

Council chiefs bought the site last year and unveiled plans to flatten the rear of the property in February, revealing hopes to erect a public square, cafes and bars on the Vicarage Lane car park.

But if given Grade II-listed status, the ex-Odeon would enjoy a higher level of protection than it does currently, with ABC bosses having to gain listed building consent as well as planning permission before partially demolishing it.

London-based Richard Gray, chairman of case work at the CTA, says gaining heritage protection for the spot could cast doubt over ABC’s current plan.

Ashford Borough Council's plan for the site
Ashford Borough Council's plan for the site

“It is an oddity because ABC would be applying to itself for the permission, but if it is given Grade II-listed status, it would throw its current plan up in the air,” he said.

“Listed building consent applications are dealt with by the local authority, but I would think Historic England would be involved as well if it was recognised. We think the building is too good to lose.”

This is what the square could look like

ABC bosses say bulldozing the rear of the landmark building will open up views of St Mary’s Church.

But the CTA - which applied to Historic England in April and campaigns nationally to protect traditional cinema buildings - says the site is worth preserving.

Historic England chiefs were set to decide last week if to take the CTA’s application to the next stage.

If agreed, a site visit and consultation with interested parties including ABC will be carried out before the government department decides whether to award the listing.

“The Ashford building is one of the best surviving from the Odeon chain,” Mr Gray added.

“All the council wants to do is demolish the auditorium and create a route through to where the enormous car park is now.

The interior of the Odeon Cinema, in the Lower High Street, Ashford in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter
The interior of the Odeon Cinema, in the Lower High Street, Ashford in 1936. Picture: Steve Salter

“They are creating more shops, but with more shops closing, they could end up with a shopping precinct with no lot shops.

“It could become an area of dereliction but it could be converted into a theatre instead."

Peter Wylde, an architectural caseworker at the CTA, says he would like to see the theatre idea come off.

Last year, a petition calling for the building to be converted into a theatre attracted more than 3,000 signatures and was debated at a full council meeting.

Mr Wylde said: “The best way to save the cinema would be by listing it.

“Ideally the cinema would be converted to the theatre that Ashford needs, but the council would have to shift its position.”

Peter Wylde of the CTA (12461376)
Peter Wylde of the CTA (12461376)

Despite looking to knock down the rear of the building, ABC chiefs plan to retain most of the frontage, creating an indoor performance space in the former ballroom on the first floor above the ex-foyer.

An ABC spokesman said the authority - which paid £1.8m for the site - is in talks with Historic England.

He said: “We are aware the CTA has made an application to Historic England requesting that the building be considered for listing.

“The council is currently in dialogue with Historic England regarding its ongoing assessment of the building.”

The Odeon Cinema in Ashford's Lower High Street in previous times. Picture: Steve Salter
The Odeon Cinema in Ashford's Lower High Street in previous times. Picture: Steve Salter

On calls for a theatre, a statement on ABC’s website reads: “The council is aware of the interest many local people have expressed in having a theatre, however the potential cost of converting this building added to the fact that former cinemas do not tend to make good theatres, has led us to look at other potential uses for the space.”

Chiefs say the loss of parking spaces in Vicarage Lane car park will be offset by a 500-space multi-storey car park behind the bowling alley in Station Road.

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