Three years ago the prospect of converting the Hippodrome into an eight-screen multiplex cinema was looming. On 20 October 2013 Professor Gavin Henderson convened a meeting at the Friends Meeting House to discuss the situation. Despite pouring rain, it was standing room only.
Since then we have launched petitions (16.500 signatures and counting), held meetings and staged events.
The planning application was approved by Brighton and Hove City Council (BHCC) in July 2014. We asked the council to list the Hippodrome as an Asset of Community Value but were told it had been out of use for too long.
We, the Theatres Trust, the Victorian Society and others asked the Secretary of State to call in the application, but we were told that planning decisions are best left to local authorities and 'the community'. So at the end of November 2014 BHCC gave final consent to the cinema scheme, despite all our efforts.
However, just as we had anticipated by then, the owners immediately put the Hippodrome and the neighbouring Dukes Lane shopping street on the market. The threat of the cinema conversion receded when Vue Entertainment said it had withdrawn from the project. Realising how much circumstances had changed in our favour, we formed a Community Interest Company in order to have a corporate entity that could negotiate ownership or partnership with whosoever took over.
In April 2015 the Hippodrome site was bought by Academy Music Group (AMG), which still had 22 years to run on the lease it had taken out to develop the Hippodrome as a music venue.
A golden opportunity
AMG approached the Theatres Trust and us to offer a six-month window of opportunity to develop a viable plan for acquisition and restoration of the Hippodrome. We formed a Stakeholder Group with The Theatres Trust, Historic England, the Frank Matcham Society, Brighton & Hove City Council and AMG. Colliers International was chosen to prepare an options and viability report, and this was delivered in December 2015.
That report has formed a template for moving forward. As well as confirming that the Hippodrome could have a viable future as a live venue, achievable in stages, it also proposed incorporating additional residential/retail development on the site to generate funds to contribute towards the restoration. We have been raising funding to do the work needed to reach the stage of applying for planning permission.
As the Colliers report puts it: 'The strategy would be to make the most of the "spectacular hall" character of the building, and its location at the heart of one of the most cosmopolitan and popular destinations in Britain, to create a truly unique arts and entertainment venue. It would return the building to its heritage as a place of variety entertainment.
It would offer both live entertainment and screen-based entertainment. It would be a social and entertainment hub operating from morning to night. It would be attractive to tourists and locals alike. It would make a connection between Middle Street and Ship Street. It would stimulate regeneration of both.'
How exciting is that?
Where we are
The Hippodrome is still number one on the Theatres Trust's list of Theatre Buildings at Risk (TBAR) for the fourth year running. Not good news in itself, of course, but it does mean that the Hippodrome has the highest profile of any unused theatre in the country. Quite rightly so, we would say. (Sorry, all the other 35. You deserve just as much support as we have.)
Preparations in place
The first objective is to acquire the freehold and do the necessary remedial work to make the buildings weatherproof and safe, leading on to create a versatile 'arena' in the main Hippodrome auditorium.
The first phase of acquisition and restoration is expected to cost in the region of £10m-£15m.
We have already raised over £85,000 to pay for
• the viability report,
• architectural plans and visualisations,
• site condition surveys,
• quantity surveyors' estimates for dilapidations and phased restoration,
• acoustic assessment,
• conservation deficit appraisal,
• sponsorship of a character statement for the Old Town Conservation Area on behalf of BHCC.
Having been successful in obtaining no fewer than six grants to date, we have started the process of applying for large grants. Unfortunately, we have not been awarded a grant from the Coastal Communities Fund this time round. It was six-times over-subscribed, so the chances were well stacked against us, even with a solid proposition.
We understand there will be another CCF round next spring and we will be in there like a shot. We are also preparing bids to the Heritage Enterprise Fund and others as part of our financial strategy.
We are also working with our development partner to create residential and retail units to support the restoration project. We are paying particular attention to the quality and scale of the development—worthy of such a prestigious site.
The restored Hippodrome will provide a flexible, adaptable space with modular seating that will be used for a wide variety of performance types and events from cabaret to circus, theatre-in-the-round to dances, stand-up comedy to sit-down dinners, snooker tournaments to wedding receptions . . . the potential is almost as great as our imagination can make it.
This is not yet the same as a lyric theatre. That might come one day. However, the proscenium stage will be available and this too could be used a self-contained performance space or opened out for use with the main auditorium.
Where we're going
The primary objective, of course, is to restore the Hippodrome so that it can re-open as a major venue for performances and events. The 'enabling' development is a secondary consideration as a means to the all-important end of bringng the Hippodrome back to life.
Nonetheless, this is an opportunity not only to open up Frank Matcham's magnificent auditorium once again but to create a building for the 21st century. And, yes, that does mean enough toilets to meet the needs of audiences of 1,500 people!
Historic England has added the whole Old Town Conservation Area (OTCA) to its 'at risk' register. Its condition is officially described as 'very bad' and the trend as 'no significant change'. We continue to be very concerned not just about the Hippodrome but the whole conservation area, which is why, on behalf of the city council, we paid for the OTCA report that opened to public consultation on 1 November for a month. Please read it (click here to open in a new window) and, if you too care about the Old Town, make a comment. The next stage will be a management plan, which will identify opportunities for improvement.
Lighting up Middle Street
Two changes will be evident even to the passer-by. Along the Middle Street frontage at first-floor level we want to create a new crush bar between the two towers, acessed at the rear of the circle. This will have an exterior glass wall. If you want to see how brilliant this addition will be, look at the St James Theatre in Victoria.
Imagine how that will transform Middle Street, especially in the evening.
Enlarging Hippodrome House
The other major improvement will be at the northern end of the site. At the moment a derelict yard surrounds Hippodrome House. We aim to incorporate this into the building, extend Hippodrome House out to the boundary, doubling the usable floor area.
Both these ideas have met with qualified approval from planners, subject to the overall project's scope and treatment.
Making Hippodrome Lane
We are also in discussions with DTZ Investors, the managing agents for Dukes Lane on behalf of the owners, Kent County Council Pension Fund. We hope to collaborate on opening up the space between the two sites as a pedestrian way (we call it Hippodrome Lane) with new retail units, perhaps outdoor eating and drinking and improving what planners call the permeability between Ship Street and Middle Street.
Although at an early stage, discussions so far have been encouraging and this part of the scheme has been greeted with optimism by both BHCC and Historic England as offering a significant improvement to the public realm in the Old Town Conservation Area.
Our funding support
OBH forthcoming events
Our Brighton Hippodrome brings you fun, entertainment and information to raise campaign funds. See listing.