A Sad Tale of a Community Led Development and Frustrated Plans to Revitalise a High Street

Here’s the full story of our bid to save the former Gaumont Cinema for the community. Come to our public meeting on 30th January 2020 at Oswald Rd School to find out next steps.

We have a large former cinema building in the heart of our high street in Chorlton. It has sat there for 100 years and still has plenty of life left in it. It is structurally sound; the roof is in good nick and it retains many of its original art deco features. This is Chorlton in Manchester, the home of the Co-operative Group and where the movement was founded. What was the Gaumont Cinema has been operating as a Co-op Funeralcare outlet for the last 40 years.

The Gaumont Cinema in its Heyday

Chorlton is in South Manchester. The prosperous bit of the city where earnings are high, property prices are racing, and the Council Tax take is strongest. And, Chorlton is the alternative bit with a reputation for independent retail and a vibrant bar scene. It is where you’ll find lots of professionals with skills and an interest in progressive city living. We do get prickly about the hummus and quinoa jokes, but we do know there is a grain of truth in it, and for many of us, its what attracts us here. We have an identity and a pride which many other places would give their eye teeth for.

I’ve lived in Chorlton for 22 years now. It was up and coming in 1998 and I think the estate agents still say it is today! In that time, we’ve seen house prices sky rocket. Houses, like the one I bought for £60k when I first came here, are now on the market for £450k. In that time the public realm in our community has had precious little investment. Our precinct still waits for redevelopment that has been long promised. Our public realm is (putting politely) ‘tired’ and our local traders have rarely been able to invest in improving the area’s appearance. We have had the tram which has help further boost property prices and has brought more trade to our bars, but there is little sign that it has revitalised the commercial heart of Chorlton. And yes, we have had investment in our local primary school, but this is really just a response to the number of young families drawn to our up and coming vibe!

We live in hope of new investment. We have much promised development in the pipeline for our precinct and a cycle superhighway on its way. But we have been waiting years for these and they still are locked up in process delays. We lost our ageing Leisure Centre a few years back (the replacement one is a car drive away) and the site still sits derelict, awaiting demolition for more flats at some point.

Chorlton looks pretty much just the same as it did when I arrived. If you can afford to get in, it’s a great place to live, but it is in need of a boost at its heart.

The Heart of Chorlton

We are a place of huge private wealth and public squalor. I know that’s a strong term and some will object but if you take a walk around early one morning before people and cars come out, and look with a detached eye, there is little to be proud of and not a lot to pull people into the heart of our urban centre.

Alongside the private wealth, we do some outstanding independent retailers and we have an army of local residents with an abundance of professional skills and a commitment to making Chorlton a better place. Among a number of local groups is the Chorlton Community Land Trust which is committed to working with planners, developers and owners to help steer new development to benefit the local community. Sat around the table we have people working in planning and property, economic development and housing, and we have people with long experience of running community and co-operative groups. We are all local and we have good contact points with our councillors, other groups and local residents. In short, we have a formidable skill-set and know our way around the issues.

The Story Unfolds

A Churchill Development

Last year the Co-operative Group moved to sell the old Gaumont cinema sat right at the heart of our high street. The process had been launched quietly without any notification or consultation. Once we knew, the CLT moved quickly but the process was closed, and a preferred bidder had been selected. Churchill Retirement Living’s plan to demolish the building and replace it with something like this, a four-story block of modern retirement flats had been selected.

We don’t oppose a better choice of homes in our community and we can see a real need for more appropriate housing for older people is an important part of solving the UK’s housing problems. Indeed, there are sites in Chorlton which are ideally suited and which the community would readily welcome being developed for this purpose.

The Building Today

But this building is our only large property in the heart of our urban centre. It sits in a critical location adjacent to our shopping precinct and neighbours our over-crowded health centre, our primary school and our library. It sits next door to the former Temperance Billiards Hall which has been redeveloped by Weatherspoon’s. There is essentially no residential property in this or the adjacent block – this is the commercial and service hub at the heart of our community.

The CLT were grateful to get a meeting with the property team at the Co-op Group to understand the plan and process. We raised our concerns about the loss of this asset and put forward an alternative vision to save the building and help revitalise our local high street. The Co-op Group were willing to entertain our ideas, but they were clear that their task was to dispose of the building and the primary driver was securing value for Co-op members. There were warm words about supporting our vision, but little substantive help was forthcoming. The Co-op may say they delayed the process to help us out, but the reality is that the preferred bidder has been pressing forward and nothing has been held back to give us time to develop our plan.

Our Plan for the Building

The CLT was set the challenge of coming up with a firm offer to evaluate against the Churchill proposal, although the Co-op refused to give us a target price to aim for. We set about working with a developer to put a commercial bid forward. We worked hard and fast to develop a plan to redevelop the building into a market style food hall on the first floor with restaurant/bar/retail space on the ground floor opening out onto pavement area facing the (soon?) to be re-developed precinct. Our vision would ultimately be to close the road between to create a new open public space which would add real value to all the surrounding businesses and establish an anchor meeting point for our community and visitors. To the rear of the building is a low-rise garage building which has outlived its useful life. Our plan proposed a commercial development with an active living centre to accommodate our growing GP practice.

Our Model Plan by Editional Studio, Chorlton

We also embarked on a crowd funding exercise to test local interest in our plans. At this point we unveiled our secret ingredient. This isn’t any old cinema. This is where the Bee Gees played their first ever gig. The Gibb brothers lived around the corner and sang here live in the late 1950s, before emigrating to Australia and … I think you know the rest of their story.

We grabbed the Stayin’ Alive name – what else are you going to call a former-funeral home? The obvious news value, quickly got the BBC, the Daily Mail and even Australian TV to cover our campaign. We also had the tireless support of the Gibb cousins who live locally and who tried hard to get some support from Barry Gibb for the campaign. We held local meetings, leafletted the whole of Chorlton and hit the social media hard.

Our crowd funder had 10 days initially and we set ourselves and ambitious target of £250k. We smashed that with two days to spare and so pushed on with the little extra time the Co-op granted us. With the support of co-investment, we raised over £370k from over 1,000 separate pledgers: 90% + of whom are local.

Our team worked with our development partner who brought forward the balance of finances to put forward a £2.2m offer to Co-op Group. Our plan was for the community to own the freehold and grant a long-term lease to the developer to bring the scheme forward.

We also sought help from the City Council and the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (who own the precinct and sit on the redevelopment plans, we have been promised). These avenues proved fruitless. While supportive of our vision and admiring of our effort, we could not even manage to get the main players to agree to sit down and explore options for the heart of Chorlton, let alone unlock additional influence or resource.

And now, after all this effort, the Co-op Group has rejected our bid.

The building will go to Churchill who will demolish it and build another block of private flats, sandwiched between our shops and essential public services. We think they have offered £2.6m (subject to planning). Retirement home developers can use Class 2 ‘residential institution’ rather than ‘dwelling houses’ (class C3). Churchill routinely takes this approach and means they are not required to deliver any affordable housing and avoid having to support the less well-off members of our community too.

But what’s the price we will pay? Well, we will lose a historic building of scale with many years of life left in it. We will lose the potential to create a vibrant hub of new commercial activity. We will lose a link to our musical heritage. And, we will lose an opportunity for the community to shape development at the heart of the place they live.

And what will we gain?  Forty private retirement flats. And what for? For the sake of ~£400k on a spreadsheet.

Reflections on the nails in our coffin

The Interior Today

We had pitched this as an issue of balancing values: £ values and principle values. We put forward a bid that balanced both. A strong commercial proposal offering a significant financial return to the Co-op, way in excess of what we believe they expected when the property went on the market early last year. And alongside that, a set of values about the importance of our historic built assets, of having flexible spaces used by the community and, of course of the significant value of local people stepping forward to help shape their neighbourhood with their own money.

We did apply to have the building registered as an Asset of Community Value. This failed because the building has been operating as a private business, not open to the public. Ironically, the pub next door would succeed and so would the building in the future if our plan had been realised. Our local leisure centre and the local Irish Club both succeeded, but neither has the same community value potential.

Why did we lose?

Co-op Group have been honest enough to say it was principally price. They have tried to soften it by pointing up their commitment to tackling loneliness amongst older people. But they equally have a commitment to save endangered spaces (which offers very small grants). They also tried to sweeten the pill by seeing if they could support other activities we are pursuing. Right now, we can’t really see that as anything other than a hollow talk and corporate smooth-over. The Co-op news response has caused further consternation as they are telling the media  “we have not yet reached a final decision in relation to the site and we are continuing to look at options which ensure the heritage of the site and its ultimate end use, benefit the local community”. This looks like Co-op obfuscation wrapped up in wrestling to reconcile its decision with its values. But if there is an opportunity, we remain ready to progress our plans.

Co-op Saving Spaces??

We knew all along it would take more than gestures to pull this off. That’s why we worked hard to conduct ourselves in a professional and commercially minded way. But the tough reality is that the bottom-line wins, and in buoyant residential property areas, commercial uses for heritage buildings will struggle to compete on the sort of narrow terms set by the Co-op.

We weren’t expecting the Co-op to move far on the basis of any appeal to higher ideals. We were realistic enough to know the difference between marketing talk and the cold realities of business decision making. Our bid had to stack up, but what we did hope for was a wider appreciation of their custodian-responsibility and the value of investing in assets to strengthen the local economy (including for the Co-op itself, which has three stores within half a mile of the site).

The Co-op has title over a historic building in our community with a story to tell and long future ahead of it. They just couldn’t open their lens to see that and help us secure it.

Where Next?

We move now into a new phase and there are two prongs to the way ahead.

Firstly, we have not given up the battle for the site. We will lodge every possible objection we can. Their £400k windfall will get eaten into with legal and planning process delays. We would much rather be at the table working with Churchill, the Co-op et al to bring forward a better plan and will do so if there is a realistic avenue.

Secondly, our community still faces all the problems it did when we embarked on this challenge. We want to harness the potential of our pledgers. We know there is a commitment to make Chorlton a better place and we are determined to keep agitating for change. We want the City Council to take us seriously and support our efforts to develop a shared community plan for the heart of Chorlton and we want to work with other land owners and developers to help secure balanced growth and a vibrant heart for the place we live.

What Lessons Can Be Learnt?

We’ve heard a lot in recent years about the dying high street and the need for a stronger offer to attract punters. We also know we need sustainable development that puts services close to where people live. In desirable residential areas, this requires a tough balance to be struck between the high profits to be made from residential development which can suffocate development of important anchor facilities that are critical for a vibrant scene in any community. We know also that out local authorities are extremely hard pressed and need local communities to take a lead in helping create better places. We weren’t asking for government money, but we really could have done with a helping hand to get all the parties sat down to look at a better way forward for Chorlton.

We also hear a lot about the importance of business having a stronger appreciation of its custodianship responsibilities, not just for the people they employ and their customers, but also for the resources of the planet and the communities in which they operate. In this case we have a company that presents itself as a principled operator with values, and which is headquartered in our city, with strong roots here. If an institution like the Co-op Group can’t find a way to make a proposition like ours work, what hope is there? Community groups will continue to be offered buildings which have no easy route forward (i.e. where they are listed and where the commercials can’t work), but a commercial scheme is much harder, even though there is a realistic prospect of a sustainable development of community benefit.

What would really help if we do it again?

  • A simpler route to neighbourhood planning and community influence over major developments.
  • A duty on property owners and local authorities to consult locally before selling buildings or sites with community asset and economic development potential.
  • Firmer initial planning advice from local authorities to property owners seeking change of use and demolition of historic buildings.
  • A more flexible approach to defining Assets of Community Value to recognise their potential as well as their recent use.
  • A community right to buy as they have in Scotland – a responsibility on local authorities to convene stakeholder planning sessions on contentious deals for critical sites in neighbourhood centres.
  • Local regeneration/economic development officers in local government able to co-ordinate stakeholders and support community-led planning.
  • Off the shelf crowd funding tools to help properly constituted community groups swiftly launch fund raising exercises.
  • A pension fund with a stronger focus on strategic economic development priorities for its land holdings.
  • Major land owner companies to publish stewardship statements setting out their duty of care and actions relating to property and land assets in their control.
  • An agreed mechanism to capture the full value of investing in (rather than demolishing) anchor assets which can unlock longer term competitiveness in urban centres.

Simon Hooton