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Ashford's Mecca Bingo building plan backlash

The future of Ashford's town centre regeneration plan has been revealed amid public furore over the failure to list the Mecca Bingo building.

KentOnline revealed last week how the Lower High Street former cinema was not deemed to meet the necessary criteria to be listed by Historic England.

The Mecca Bingo building has been at the centre of debate for months
The Mecca Bingo building has been at the centre of debate for months

Campaigners had seen the listing application as the last line of defence as Ashford Borough Council prepares to partially demolish it to make way for the Odeon Square scheme, comprising an outdoor cinema, 61 homes, retail units and eateries.

They hope to flatten the rear of the property and knock through the former entrance in the Lower High Street to make a pedestrian route leading to the public square on the Vicarage Lane car park.

Speaking after the listing decision was confirmed, council leader Gerry Clarkson (Con) said: “Historic England took a full assessment of the building and its recommendation was not to list.

“It was helpful that it wasn’t listed but that doesn’t detract from the fact that we want to preserve the facade because of the value it holds as part of Ashford’s history.”

It has now been noted that a wider public consultation on the scheme will be held in the spring with a planning application being submitted by the end of summer.

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

The two-year-long construction schedule is expected to begin in the first quarter of 2021.

A Facebook post by ABC was met with indignation when it stated that: “Although we would welcome a theatre coming forward in Ashford, we believe the timing and location are not quite right in this instance, which is why we are looking at other proposals to transform the site.”

Following the largely negative response to its first social media post, the authority published another.

It said: “We know that there is an appetite for a theatre in the centre of Ashford, however the potential cost of converting this particular building added to the fact that former cinemas do not tend to make good theatres - as the set-up is actually quite different - has led us to look at other potential uses for this space.

“In the recent consultation we discovered that people were interested in having a theatre however residents also put forward a number of suggestions for alternative uses of the space, including eateries, community space and the potential for indoor and outdoor events.

Ashford Borough Council revealed its plans for the so-called Odeon Square scheme in February.
Ashford Borough Council revealed its plans for the so-called Odeon Square scheme in February.

“We have tried to take aspects of all of these ideas and include them in our plans for the site to please the maximum amount of residents.

“We know this won’t please everybody but we hope that the mix proposed for the development will balance the need to generate income as well as provide a community and cultural hub that enriches our town centre.

“Inside, the plan is to create a spacious new indoor performance space upstairs, seating about 120 people.

“There would also be an outdoor performance area along with a food and drink offering and pedestrian route through the site.

“We hope that both of these spaces will enable a variety of shows, gigs and events to be put on in the town centre - both inside and outside.”

More than 170 commenters added their opinions to the post within 24 hours.

'This is a predominantly ugly building...' - Malcolm Triggs

One comment left by Julia Fogerty echoed the vast majority of the posters by saying: “What a shame. A theatre there was a brilliant idea.

“People in Ashford do go to the theatre, we just have to travel to Canterbury and London to do that at the moment.

“Failing that, the indoor market is a great idea.

“It’s good for small businesses, people who have occasional crafts to sell, and is an all-weather venue.

“It’s right in the heart of the town centre, and will entice people in again.

“What we do not need is more housing.

“This will turn the town centre from just that into another housing estate with a couple of shops.”

Another, Ben Clifton, said: “When I grew up in the 80s there was very little to actually do in Ashford, but we had open spaces.

“Now there is equally nothing to do, and yet we are building blocks and blocks of flats, houses on flood plains and open spaces are disappearing.

“Let’s make ashford great, not just the country’s biggest hotel for London workers.”

Others conceded that while a theatre is a nice idea, the section of the building being demolished won’t be too much of a loss.

Malcolm Triggs wrote: “This is a predominantly ugly building, particularly from the rear, and there is no commercial justification for a theatre that would be under-used, costly and simply take trade away from other theatres in the area.

“If you read the plans you will see that the pretty bit (sort of) - the front - is being kept.

"You are entitled to your opinion, and to disagree with the plans, but at least read the proposal first.”

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