The Brighton Astoria, or; Art Deco ain’t what it used to be

by robertmcnicol

Hi both. What what, two posts in as many days? Cripes.

Yesterday afternoon, whilst you mere mortals were scrabbling around for an invite to Google+, the decider-actioners of the Brighton & Hove City Council Planning Committee were ringing the death-knell for one of the few remaining grand cinemas of our fair city.

“Eco-offices and jobs replease [sic] empty cinema” went the press release. (Which makes the classic press office mistake of not being able to spell overestimating the numbers – apparently the offices will bring “almost 200 jobs”. No, the actual estimate is 170 jobs. Is 170 almost 200? No. It’s exactly 170. Most of the populous can quite easily grasp the number 170. Perhaps if there were 192 jobs, you might call that almost 200. But 170 is nearer 150 than 200. Oh, OK are we rounding up to the nearest 50 now? So 151 is actually almost 200. *Sigh* I know a four year old that counts like that. Seriously. Grr. Calm down.)

Under different circumstances you might have found me rallying to the defence of a grade II listed building, if all they’re planning to replease replace it with is some rubbish offices. But in this case, the Councillors made exactly the right decision.

Let’s talk about planning policy. No! Sit down, Smithins! If you pay attention at the back you might actually learn something.

So you might have thought that the decision about whether or not to knock down old buildings came about because of what those grey-haired buffoons on the planning committee had in their porridge, or that some officious blouse-wearing prude up at English Heritage wields their unscrupulous, pedantic red pen. But actually there is national policy, contained in a document called – thrillingly – PPS5. (You wouldn’t get that in the States, would you? It would be called “Guidance for The Defendors of the Ancient and Modern Wonders of Americaland”.)

If you want to go about knocking down old buildings, you usually have to meet all of these four criteria (I’ve paraphrased this a bit):

The nature of the building prevents all reasonable uses of the site

No viable use of the building can be found

Conservation through grant funding isn’t possible

The loss of the building is outweighed by the benefits of bringing the site back into use

Note, if you wouldn’t mind, that none of this relates to the condition of the building. It doesn’t matter whether the building is a ruined hulk or a pristine gem (which is fortunate, when you think about it – we all love a nice castle. Plus it gives me an excuse to post this; you’ll remember how fugly Embassy Court used to look before it got tarted up. Looks alright now, I daresay.)

And it also, whilst we’re neologising and portmanteauxifying, doesn’t matter if the building is fugly. One woman’s National Theatre is my Gerkhin, if you get my drift. Of course, the state of repair and the beauty of the building will have an effect on what grant funding you might get, or how viable the building is, but it’s not directly considered by the local planning authority.

 I’m not going to give you the whole sorry saga about the poor Astoria (you can read it all yourself in the excellent report by the planning officer – search here for application BH2010/0375); suffice to say that I think the right decision was made. Or, in other words, these four criteria were met and could be shown to be met.

What’s important, what I’m trying to say, is that it’s reassuring to know that we don’t just demolish old buildings because they’re undashionable, or because they can’t turn a profit on their own, or because someone wants to put something else there, or because they need a lick of paint. We do it when we have to, to make sure that our cities don’t become beautiful ruins.

Postscript: I’ll endeavour to put up some photos of the Astoria at the weekend. Whilst the right decision was made, I don’t think that means that we should forget about what was, once, a rather nice building.