April 22, 2012 · Politics Etc...

Northern towns and cities often have old cinemas in some form of repair (or not). The Glenroyale in Horsforth is now part convenience store and part kids’ play area. One in Kirkstall is now offices for a mental health charity. Another one on Kirkstall Road next to the old bus depot is currently a paint and decorating store. There’s a very prominent one that sits on the edge of a city square. It changed hands a few times, had quite a few of its original features removed, gained a bit of a dodgy reputation and then finally stood empty for several years while people dithered about what to do with it. That is the Majestic Cinema on the edge of City Square in Leeds. It was bought by a developer a couple of years who immediately started a programme of restoring it, digging out features such as the old statues that used to sit on its roof, and turning it into a music venue with bars, restaurants and a roof terrace. The scaffolding on the outside is due to come down this week so we’ll be able to see how it’s going. Sounds like it could be quite an exciting project.
Compare this to the rather sad sight of the Odeon next door to the Alhambra theatre in Bradford. After I moved from Leeds in 1984 this became my closest “big city” cinema, especially because my mum was studying for a degree in Bradford at the time. I don’t remember much about what we actually went to see but it was always a lot more exciting than going to the Hebden Bridge Picture House which mostly showed 2nd run stuff.  Like the Majestic the Odeon has been standing empty for ages while people squabble about what to do with it. Because of my personal memories of the place I’ve been keeping half an eye on what’s been happening. It was transferred to Yorkshire Forward who decided the best thing to do would be to knock it down and replace it with the kind of bland office building that Milton Keynes might reject on the grounds of being too boring. Before that could happen YF were supposed to sign a section 106 agreement under the Town and Country Planning act 1990. However for some reason or other they did not.
Yorkshire Forward was abolished on the 31st March 2012 and the Odeon was transferred to the Homes and Communities Agency. Various people have been doing some digging into what’s been happening and it all sounds very murky to me. The original contract between Yorkshire Forward and the developers included a clause that allowed either side to pull out if an agreement was not reached within 3 years. The HCA have admitted that they could withdraw but they can’t say how much it would cost on the grounds of commercial confidentiality. The developers were a company called Artisan H Ltd but they went into administration and administrators were appointed on the 20th December 2011. The director of Yorkshire Forward, Terence Hodgkinson, and 2 of the team responsible for Bradford city centre regeneration to Bradford Council are now directors of a company called Morphe Ltd which was incorporated on the 2ndMarch 2011. Hodgkinson joined Morphe in August 2011 and was appointed as director on the 12th October 2011, a bit more than 2 months before Artisan H called in the administrators. Morphe now advises Langtree Plc, who took over Artisan H’s side of the Odeon contract.
Some very interesting dates. Was Hodgkinson working for Morphe (advising developers) at the same time as being director of Yorkshire Forward? The Committee on Standards in Public Life (aka the Nolan Committee) has a number of principles about public sector work including integrity, openness and objectivity. As a council tax payer (in Leeds) whose council tax went some way towards funding Yorkshire Forward I’d like to be sure the organisation operated within the spirit as well as the letter of these principles.
People have also been trying to get useful information out of Bradford Council about all this, but they’ve decided that the Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to them and that correspondence is closed. I’m not entirely sure what they’re on because this is the same body that decided to install a ditch outside the town hall, and arranged for a load of buildings on Cheapside to be knocked down without making sure there was anything to go in its place apart from a vague suggestion.
So why is it important to make sure the Odeon doesn’t fall prey to an “accident” involving a bulldozer and one of the main structural supports, or a fire where the only thing to survive is the insurance documents? Bradford doesn’t have a lot of money. If you want people to go there and spend money rather than an out of town shopping centre you’ve got to give them a reason to do so. Central Bradford already has the National Media Museum with the Imax and Pictureville cinemas so I’m not sure there would be the demand for another one, but there are still lots of things you can do with the structure. Manchester has the Printworks and the Triangle (old Corn Exchange). Leeds has the Light, the old post office building and hopefully what the Majestic will be. What doesn’t last particularly well or draw in people to spend money are bland buildings that look like generic models from a CAD package. Part of City Square in Leeds used to have a particularly ugly building owned by Norwich Union (now demolished and replaced with something much more attractive), and British Rail/City House on the station approach road actually managed to be insulted by John Betjeman.
The square in Bradford already had a boring-looking office building which was demolished when the Abbey National moved out and built a new place on part of the site of the bus station, so I’m not sure why it was decided another one was needed. The original proposal document from Yorkshire Forward didn’t include the option of keeping the building shell and redeveloping the insides so it’s not surprising no-one offered it. It’s more complicated than just clearing a site but it does look a lot better. With the Alhambra, town hall, National Media Museum and the other developments there a refurbished Odeon would fit in quite nicely and a lot better than something that was just a square box of glass.
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