Published: 14:09, 11 October 2019
| Updated: 16:42, 11 October 2019
Major plans to revamp a town centre are "completely in limbo" as a council waits for a historic assessment of a former Mecca Bingo building.
The Cinema Theatre Association (CTA) wrote to Historic England calling for the landmark, in Lower High Street, Ashford, to be given Grade II-listed status.
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A decision on the application is yet to be made, leaving a huge question mark over Ashford Borough Council's multi-million pound redevelopment plans for the site.
Council chiefs want to partially demolish the ex-Odeon as part of their plans for a public square and bars on the Vicarage Lane car park, but will have to rethink their scheme if the building is listed as it would become protected.
Historic England has now completed a site visit and a 21-day consultation, but is yet to submit its recommendation to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which will have the final say on whether to award the listing.
The DCMS will usually agree with Historic England’s advice, but no set time frame has been given for when a decision will be issued.
ABC’s deputy leader Cllr Paul Bartlett says the uncertainty over the application means the town centre project is on hold.
“We can’t make any decision about what will happen until we know Historic England’s result - we are completely in limbo,” Cllr Bartlett said.
“The fact that we have a budget for the demolition and wider redevelopment of the site actually becomes irrelevant.
“If it is listed, then the whole plan and budget will have to be redone as you can’t demolish a listed building.”
ABC chiefs have already agreed a budget of £1.3m to demolish the building, as well as an overall figure of £21.3m for the whole scheme.
Chiefs hopes to partially demolish the ex-Odeon, flattening the rear of the property and knocking through the former entrance in the Lower High Street to make a pedestrian route leading to a new public square on the car park.
The space - nicknamed Odeon Square - would feature a large outdoor cinema screen surrounded by cafes and bars.
A micro brewery and pizzeria are also planned alongside a taco bar and delicatessen, as well as new studios.
Bosses say bulldozing the rear of the landmark 1930s building - which was bought by ABC for £1.8m last year - will open up views of St Mary’s Church.
In the council’s ‘emerging plan’, 61 homes are proposed with 40 car parking spaces.
But Cllr Bartlett says the listed building application isn’t just holding up the Mecca plan, but is also having an impact on the proposed multi-storey car park in Station Road.
Authority chiefs submitted an outline planning application in August to construct the five-storey, 500-space facility behind Hollywood Bowl to make up for spaces lost if the Vicarage Lane car park is developed.
“It also has a knock-on effect on the multi-storey,” Cllr Bartlett added.
“But the delay does mean we can re-engage with residents about the [Mecca Bingo] scheme.
“The Central Ashford Community Forum is now much more active than it was in the past and we can use that as an opportunity to get feedback from residents and businesses.”
Last week, a competition asking architects to bid on the Vicarage Lane contract reached its deadline, despite the Historic England listing investigation still being underway.
Campaigners have been calling on the council to convert the Mecca building into a theatre, with a petition set up in July last year gaining thousands of signatures.
As well as the Cinema Theatre Association, various groups have shown support for the listed building application.
In a letter to Historic England, SAVE Britain's Heritage noted that the 1936 cinema, designed by "renowned" cinema architect Andrew Mather, "has survived almost untouched and still boasts most of its original fixtures and fittings".
It said: "The auditorium with its fine art deco decorations, elegant wall panels and railings, is particularly remarkable.
"Originally designed for almost 1,600 patrons, the auditorium was not subdivided like so many other grand cinemas, and the large volume with balcony and stalls remains intact.
"In addition to the auditorium, the cinema offered a range of public spaces which are equally well-designed and retain most of their original decoration, such as the ballroom.
"Throughout the whole building, historic ornamental railings, door fixtures, windows, cornices and original plasterwork survive.
"Two sets of stairs with their sweeping steps and graceful railings still radiate 1930s glamour.
"Of Andrew Mather’s cinema designs only very few survive; one of them, the Odeon at Faversham is Grade II-listed.
"In our view, the former Odeon meets the criteria for statutory protection owing to its rarity as one of the few surviving grand Odeon cinemas, designed by one of the great British cinema architects in the 1930s, where most of the original features remain in place, and its refined architectural quality, particularly the detailing in the auditorium and ballroom.
"Based on this assessment, the building is a very remarkable example of a cinema of this period, which we strongly believe merits listing and must be preserved."
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of the town centre project, ABC is confidently moving ahead with the architect contract competition.
"We expect Historic England to submit its recommendation to the DCMS within the next month," a spokesman said.
"The council is assembling a specialist team to help us deliver this exciting development in the heart of the town centre.
"We are seeking to appoint a project team to provide specialist architect, development manager and project manager services.
"Our invitation to tender has generated more than 60 responses, and we are delighted with the high level of interest in our scheme and in the high calibre of the respondents.
"Our specialist team is due to be in place before the end of the year."
The authority also revealed that emergency services are set to use the former bingo hall as a training facility, with the spokesman saying: "The council is in the very early stages of discussing this with Kent Police and Kent Fire and Rescue Service and we want to make sure that it’s appropriate to use the building.
"We will consider a range of issues before a final decision is made, including steps to ensure that no damage is caused to the building, environmental impacts and the health and safety of everyone involved."
In regards to the Station Road car park, ABC expects the outline application to come before its planning committee before the year's end.
The spokesman added: "Following that we will pause to take stock of car parking provision in the town centre to ensure that we continue to match supply with demand.
"In carrying out this review we will take into account the availability and development of other council-owned car parks and a multitude of other factors which have a bearing on demand for parking.
"This work will enable us to better understand the timing of our decision to build the Station Road multi-storey."