HERITAGE Invaluable assets

Cultural heritage is the target of acquisitions, but this time it’s the community behind the takeover

Things looked bleak for the Weymouth Pavilion theatre back in 2011. It was a familiar story of decline – dwindling audiences, a cash-strapped council owner and a bill for repairs. It closed down and demolition seemed only to be a matter of time.

But just three years later, the Weymouth Pavilion is thriving. A programme of stand-up comedians, live music, tribute acts, plays, opera and touring musicals has enticed more than 300,000 visitors through the doors and last season’s Christmas pantomime was the most successful in the theatre’s history.

Weymouth Community Interest Company runs the Pavilion under the watchful eye of husband and wife team Phil Say and Lou Dominey. The business is not-for-profit and the com- pany operates to ensure the upkeep of the theatre as a place of entertainment but also as a space for community, so- cial and educational events. The theatre is now operated by a mixture of full and part-time staff supported by volunteers from the local community.

It’s a success story not only for the theatre but, say ministers, an achievement for a new law which allows local communities to take over buildings and open spaces which they see as vi- tal to their area. Under the provisions of the Localism Act, communities can nominate any local building or land they love as an ‘asset of community value’ and then, if it comes up for sale, they have six months to raise the funds to buy it. Since 2012, over 3000 ACVS (Assets of Community Value)  have been listed, including heritage sites such as Dulwich Park, Ilkley Town Hall and Weymouth Pavilion.

Now the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG), with the Heritage Lottery Fund and Historic England wants more communities to do the same. They have launched a new guide aimed at encouraging more community groups to take advantage of their ‘Community Rights‘ - specifically the ‘Community Right to Bid’ - by listing heritage sites as Community Assets with their local council. They would join that list of 3,000, which already includes 1600 pubs, as well as over 150 local sporting assets, including football stadiums, bowling greens and cricket pavilions. The list even includes a mountain peak, Blencathra, in the Lake District.

Community value

In February 2015, Ilkley Civic Society was successful in getting four assets comprising Ilkley Town Hall, the Library, Kings Hall and Winter Garden listed as Assets of Community Value by Bradford Council. The town hall, which is also a Grade II listed heritage building, was successfully nominated on the basis that it was a community space of historical interest. Helen Kidman, chair of the society, says that council facilities were being withdrawn from the buildings and local people were worried about the council’s plans. “Bradford has had an aggressive policy of asset management, getting rid of buildings and we were concerned for the future”. However she does not believe that simply having a community right to bid is in itself a sufficient safeguard for the future. “The community has to be able to raise the money and that’s not always possible”.

Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund says, “The ability to nominate everything from a park or museum to a local landmark building as an Asset of Community Value is a powerful tool, helping com- munities come together and protect the parts of their neighbourhood that matter to them the most”.

The Localism Act, which includes powers which enable communities to take over the running of local services (Community Right to Challenge) and control development in their community (Neighbourhood Planning), also strengthens the planning powers of the local authority. This enables the council to take an ACV listing into account in a planning application. Thus, if a pub is an ACV, it can stop developers demolishing them or completely changing them.

Supporters say that the new rules can provide a boost for other lo- cal heritage listing. Deborah Lamb, deputy chief executive of Historic England, says that identifying herit- age assets or adding them to a local list “celebrates their importance at the heart of communities and recognises them as a part of local heritage.”

Opened in 1908 as Weymouth was becoming a popular holiday resort for families, with the first performance of a Christmas pantomime, Mother Goose. In the 1930s, it became a popular cinema and was requisitioned by the military for war purposes, only narrowly escaping demolition. The Pavilion was returned to the Council in 1947 and was leased to the Buxton Theatre Circuit who reopened it in May 1950 as The Ritz. But in 1954, a fire destroyed much of the building and the charming Edwardian theatre was replaced by a new Pavilion at a cost of £300,000. By the beginning of the 21st century repair costs were starting to mount and a number of redevelopment proposals suggested and abandoned. Weymouth’s role as a sailing venue for the 2012 Olympic Games meant a temporary boost in popularity but the axe finally fell a year later. Then the community trust stepped in.

In London, in April 2014, Dulwich Park Friends successfully nominated  Dulwich Park as an Asset of Community Value. This park which started out as farmland and a group of meadows was in created in 1890 and retains a significant number of historical fea- tures.

The Ivy House was the social focal point for its South London community until it was sold to a developer with ambitions to convert it to residential units for sale at a profit. A neighbourhood group secured both its listing as a Grade II building of architectural and historic interest and as an ACV. They made a successful Community Right to Bid, supported by a loan of £550,000 from the Architectural Heritage Fund. They also set up as a Community Benefit Society, which meant they could raise additional capital of over £140,000 through a Community Share Offer. This has enabled local people to have a long-term stake in the ownership of the pub, which is managed both by and for the community.

Greenham Common Tower

Greenham Common Parish Council successfully applied to West Berkshire Council to list the Grade II-listed air traffic control tower at the former US air base as an Asset of Community Value in 2013. This enabled the council to tender for the building, which is being turned into a visitor centre with exhibition space, café and toilet facilities for schools and other groups.

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