Published: 05:00, 20 January 2022
| Updated: 15:57, 20 January 2022
A rough diamond that holds the key to the regeneration of a town centre or a blot on the landscape that needs knocking down?
Whatever your view, the long-running debate over the future of Ashford's abandoned Odeon cinema-turned-Mecca Bingo hall shows no signs of stopping.
Built in 1936, the prime site was snapped up by Ashford Borough Council (ABC) for £1.8m in 2018 – a move that has helped fill the readers' letters pages of our sister title the Kentish Express ever since.
Because soon after buying the building, the authority revealed plans to demolish the rear of the structure, retaining just the ornate frontage.
Although these proposals have gone rather quiet in recent months, bosses hope to turn the Vicarage Lane car park at the rear of the site into 230 homes, adding a new public square featuring "an uninterrupted view" of St Mary's Church.
But this has angered those who feel the art deco landmark facing the Lower High Street would make a perfectly good theatre that would put the town on the map.
In 2019, campaigners from the Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) even wrote to Historic England calling for the structure to be given Grade II-listed status.
The effort almost worked, with inspectors calling the hall "a rare survival of an interwar cinema which has undergone comparatively little change since its completion".
But they stated "while level of survival is a key factor in the assessment for listing, it does not override the importance of architectural quality in determining special interest".
The site was said to be "neither representative of the typically modern Odeon style, nor of the best work by architect Andrew Mather", and that "typical of Odeon cinemas the interior is not lavish, in this case relying heavily on economic applied decoration for effect".
But buoyed by the success of a petition set up by Aldington's Peter Morris-Kelso in 2018, many letter writers are still keen to share their views on the topic.
The Travis Perkins employee called on ABC to convert the site into a theatre and his campaign drew support from across the town.
"We have the bones for a theatre, it just needs some money spent on it," supporter Freddie Clements, from Singleton, said.
"The council wants to spend thousands half-demolishing an historic building just to get a better view of a church that has been there for years.
"The money it will cost to knock it down should be used to do the theatre up; lots of people want it.
"We are surrounded by theatres: Folkestone, Leas Cliff Hall; Canterbury, Marlowe; Maidstone, Hazlitt. Imagine being a tourist coming to Kent and wondering why Ashford is the only town without a theatre."
After attracting more than 3,000 signatures, Mr Morris Kelso's campaign led to a debate at a full council meeting in December 2018.
Prior to the discussion, a report published by the authority said the decision to purchase the building was based on the 'marriage value' of linking it with the Vicarage Lane car park.
It also detailed how a condition survey carried out prior to purchase of the site concluded that a change of use and costs of refurbishments would be too high.
During the meeting, ABC leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson (Con) said: "We will have a theatre in Ashford – it won’t come tomorrow but it might come in the next four or five years.
"The bingo hall is not an option because I’m in favour of a new, modern one.
"A study [by the Fourth Street consultancy firm] said Ashford could sustain a 250-seat theatre, but we are looking at a much larger theatre with more than 750 seats.
"I would like to see a significantly larger one and I want us to have something we can be proud of."
More than three years since that meeting, no progress has been made on the plans for a theatre in the town, but ABC says it hopes to turn the surviving Mecca Bingo frontage into a "multi-use indoor cultural space" while demolishing the rest of the building.
When Historic England was considering whether to list the site, which became a Top Rank bingo hall in 1976, it mentioned how ABC had offered misleading information.
In a consultation report prepared on ABC’s behalf by consultancy practice Heritage Collective, the council suggested to the inspectors that the interior had been altered and the exterior “highly altered”.
But Historic England said in response: “We do not agree that the building has undergone a high degree of alteration. Some of the alterations listed in the consultation response are unclear or unsubstantiated.”
ABC also claimed that “dropped ceilings and modern doors and finishes” had been installed across “the entire first floor area between the former ballroom and the auditorium”.
The inspectors responded, saying: “This is misleading. The area that was originally occupied by the cafe has dropped ceilings and modern doors and finishes, as well as being subdivided, as noted in our report and elsewhere in the consultation response.
“The circulation space between the former cafe and the auditorium does not have dropped ceilings and retains its original doors.
“We accept most of the alterations or losses listed in the consultation response but do not agree that this amounts to substantial alteration.”
Technicalities aside, Kennington's Noelle Hall, writing in 2018, explained why she believes ABC is right to dismiss the calls to convert the whole site.
"It is a massive eyesore from all perspectives and those who park in the car park beside it have to walk through a long, narrow and, particularly at night, unpleasant passageway," she said.
"Ashford will never be the market town it once was but every opportunity to make the high street attractive and safe should be welcomed.
"Many small and successful theatres are created from smaller buildings such as chapels and halls: Whitstable and Herne Bay are good examples."
But Pluckley resident Laura Robinson disagrees, saying plans for a public square haven't been thought through.
She wrote in November last year: "There is nothing principally wrong, is there, with the former Mecca building?
"It is still, I'm afraid, beyond me why the council wishes to tear down such a useful and iconic building and replace it with some trendy outdoor area and even more homes.
"We need indoor space. It rains most of the year and pantomime season is January is it not?!
"Please think about this again, properly..."
Would you like to see the former Mecca Bingo turned into a theatre? Comment below or email email@example.com