Clapham Grand PH - no thanks
Catherine Croft on a successful appeal against pub conversion.
The recent appeal on The Clapham Grand is good news for anyone trying to prevent a theatre being converted to pub use. The Clapham Grand is a typical Grade II suburban theatre designed by Earnest Woodrow and opened in 1900. Its twin cupolas can be seen to the south of the railway as you leave London, just beyond Clapham junction station. It had been a bingo hall until the early 1990s when the Mean Fiddler organisation - which runs clubs and live music venues - took it in and carried out much needed repairs.

Unfortunately, the music use was not as successful as had been predicted and the building was sold to the pub chain Weatherspoon's, which paid a lot of money for it, gambling on getting planning permission to convert it into a pub ' Weatherspoon's has a well deserved reputation for relatively sensitive conversions and owns many ex-banks and ex-cinemas as well as theatres. In some cases it has undoubtedly been the saviour of historic buildings, but the Theatres Trust, along with English Heritage and Wandsworth Council, felt that this was a case where the quality of the interior would be damaged by pub use and where, provided that the building acquisition cost was not inflated by the prospect of a more lucrative use, The Grand could remain in live performance.

Appeals were held against failure to determine both planning permission (change of use from D2 to A3) and listed building consent applications, and both were dismissed by a robust Inspector's report.
Despite the fact that the stalls have been levelled for many years and the Mean Fiddler had inserted a very substantial bar in an uncompromisingly modern idiom, and despite Weatherspoon's offer to provide whatever might be required in the way of Chinese dragons or pagodas (the interior has a Chinoiserie theme with a ceiling in the form of an upturned willow pattern plate) the inspector was not convinced.

"Regardless of the detailed design of the bar, I consider that so large a feature within the auditorium would result in a significant and unwelcome intrusion into an area from which the interior of the listed building derives much of its special interest."

He was also unhappy with the idea of introducing "balustrading, glazed panels or similar enclosure" across the front of the stage which would have been necessary for the stage to be used as additional seating.

This would:
" . . . appear disturbingly at odds with the essential relationship between stage and auditorium which lies at the very heart of theatre design. Such an arrangement would, in my opinion, se~ riously undermine the appearance of the interior which is a vital part of the
listed building's special interest."

The Inspector recognised that:
"... the change of use proposed would offer a high degree of certainty about the building's future. It would permit restoration without the use of public funds and would improve the prospect of the building's fabric being preserved in the long term. Attractive as these considerations may be, they could not, in my opinion, justify granting listed building consent in the face of the harm 1 have identified."

Both a long bar and some sort of stage edge barrier are more or less essential to this type of scheme, so it is a useful decision. The second point is, of course, also relevant to many applications to split theatres or cinemas.

The Inspector certainly gave considerable weight to the likelihood of a theatre user acquiring the building and actor Corin Redgrave's evidence on behalf of his Moving Theatre Company was compelling, although his financial proposals were only at an initial stage. No doubt there will be cases were pub conversion will be a pragmatic alternative to demolition and, like bingo, ensure the preservation of some buildings where live theatre could not currently work. The essential thing is to identify whether this is the case as early as possible.

The Theatres Trust is a statutory consultee on all planning applications affecting land on which there is a theatre, but if for any reason you have a case where we have not been notified, we would very much like to hear from you. We can offer specialist advice on the financial and practical viability of commercial or subsidised theatre, as well as historic significance.


T/APP/H5960/A/96/273375/P7 & T/ APP/H5960/A/96/812996/P7

Catherine Croft is the Architectural Officer of The Theatres Trust.

Context 57 March 1998