A victory for local democracy; a triumph for the Big Society, the locals repel a rich outsider. Walthamstow saw all of those on Wednesday night as the local Council’s Planning Committee rejected an application from a religious organisation to change a cinema into a church.
It is not often that a Planning Committee attracts an audience of over 1,000 with more unable to get in. Loft extensions, new fast food chicken take-aways and speed bumps are not that exciting. But when Walthamstow’s last cinema is under threat then the stakes are higher. The Granada cinema, a jewel of 1930s cinema architecture and design, closed as a commercial cinema in 2000. In 2002 a religious organisation called the United Church of the Kingdom of God bought it, sought approval to change it into a “help centre” church, was refused planning permission, appealed right up to John Prescott.. and still lost.
Eight years later they try again. And lose again. The seven councillors on the committee all voted to reject the application, agreeing with the report from their officers. Four more councillors also spoke to oppose the application. The local MP, Stella Creasy had also written to oppose. This was not a party issue.
The meeting was charged. On entering it was like entering a wedding: “bride or groom”? Down the right hand side the supporters of the UCKG, down the left the cinema supporters. The UCKG side played a neat theatrical trick just before the start by putting on hi-visibility yellow vests and launched into a standing chant, giving a good impression of striking building workers. Not to be outdone the cinema side responded with a heart-felt rendition of “save our cinema” chants.
The meeting began. A low key presentation of the planning application, and the reasons for rejection, came from the Council staff. Speakers rose to oppose; two speakers supported the religious organisation with emotional tales of how they have been turned from a life of teenage crime or low self-esteem. The Councillors on the Committee gave their views. Vote: 7-0. to reject the application.
Celebrations began. What was at stake? There was a clear hint of local resistance to a rich outsider; no different to opposing a Tesco. It was clear that most of the UCKG supporters came from outside Waltham Forest, as does of course the UCKG which originated in Brazil. Contempt was a word used frequently: it was clear that UCKG had made not attempt to talk to the local democratic representatives. A telling point was made by 10 of the Councillors that none of their constituents had spoken to them in support of the help centre church. Stella Creasy MP had made the same point. Secular versus religion was an undercurrent: with over 100 religious places already in the area why do need another when there is not one cinema was a frequent refrain.
I gained the impression that to UCKG it appeared quite simple, as their lead speaker proclaimed “It is OURS” as if this was a sound enough reason to do what they liked with a building and to the local community. The brute force of ownership backed by lawyers was all they needed so it seemed. Their lawyers letter seemed to imply a political motivation on the part of the Councillors: as if their own application was not equally political, witness the two speakers they put forward. The local community was irrelevant to them undermining their claim to work for regeneration. I can’t think of any city in Europe which has placed a religious building at the heart of its regeneration drive for jobs and prosperity.
The result: a triumph for local campaigning, for a cross party support for a local amenity, even the Big Society in action if you want. Local people decided on a local planning issue based on local needs. Democracy came to Walthamstow.