When WBC purchased the Dome complex in 1969 it was done with the single-minded aim of its eventual demolition as part of a larger redevelopment of the area south of Warwick Street. In the council’s own words it was purchased ‘…to facilitate redevelopment of the area south of Warwick Street.’
The redevelopment of the area south of Warwick Street had always been seen by the council as a second phase in the comprehensive redevelopment of the whole of the eastern part of Worthing town centre.
The first phase, “Warwick Street North” had already resulted in the tragic loss of many historic buildings, including the Georgian Theatre Royal and Worthing’s first town hall, to be replaced by the monstrous Guildbourne Centre.
The idea of comprehensive redevelopment of the area dated from the 1940s/1950s. It had been discredited and was very much out of touch with public opinion by the 1980s.
The 30 years following its purchase by the council were to be the most perilous in the Dome’s entire history. The Council split the complex into three parts, letting each on a short lease only, which naturally made it impossible for tenants to risk spending substantial amounts of money on maintenance or repairs and over a period of time the neglect became self-evident.
The shop adjacent to Library Place, the Rendezvous Café, was let to Dominic Fardelli, who retired in August 1998, while the first floor and the other shop were occupied by Roberto and Attilio Miele who ran a successful bingo hall and café for almost 30 years.
The ground floor (cinema) was leased, firstly to a Mr Whittaker and then to Stephen Wischhusen who ran two other cinemas elsewhere, and a theatre in Crewe, Cheshire. But when his company went bankrupt in 1992 it opened up a can of worms.
The pitfalls of demolishing such a beautiful cinema and historic building were first highlighted in the 1970s by Worthing’s first well-known conservationist the late Mrs Pat Baring, who lobbied the council unsuccessfully to apply for Listed Building status for the Dome, and to refurbish the section of the seafront between Marine Place and the Steyne.
In 1979 the Warwick Street South Informal Plan was approved by the Council proposing a comprehensive redevelopment of the area. Although some buildings were to be retained, the Dome was not one of them.
After being split into several screens for the last years of its life, the art deco Odeon Cinema was demolished in 1987 by Humphry Avon to make way for his Montague Shopping Centre.
It was not until the late 1980s, however, that the possibility of redevelopment seemed near and wider public awareness of the impending destruction of the town’s Edwardian cinema and other historic buildings gathered momentum. The objective of the council became clear when a comprehensive report on the structural condition of the Dome was published in August 1988, which concluded that a prohibitive amount of some £1,900,000 would be needed to restore the complex. The survey was carried out by Calder Ashby of Chichester.
Alarm bells rang in some quarters and in 1988 the first organised demonstration of public feeling took place, calling for the historic Dome Cinema to be saved.
Local resident Robin King, a solicitor, whose children so much enjoyed watching movies at the unique and historic picture house, called a public meeting there on Sunday 10 April with the aim of galvanising people into action.
More than 600 people turned up! The auditorium was packed and the meeting was generally judged to have been the largest such meeting held in Worthing since the war.
Both Robin King and the cinema lessee, Stephen Wischhusen, were greatly encouraged to see such a large number attending the public meeting, including actor Christopher Timothy.
Featured a few years before in the highly-acclaimed film Wish You Were Here, the seafront picture-house also received the support of Tom Bell who played a leading role in the film. He was quoted as saying “It is a fantastic cinema and it is terribly sad that anyone would think of pulling down such a great building.”
His condemnation of the authorities was echoed by comedian Roy Hudd who was quoted as saying “Of course it is tragic to think such a unique building should even be considered for redevelopment. If it is, it will be regretted for ever, believe me.”
During November the council announced that they would be unveiling a development brief for the area around the Dome Cinema in the new year. The Argus newspaper reported on 25 November: “Save the Dome Campaigners and entrepreneur Stephen Wischhusen are submitting their own plans.
Over the coming months enthusiastic helpers wearing ‘Save the Dome Campaign’ T-shirts spent countless hours collecting signatures on a petition.
So tireless in their aims were they that the eventual tally amounted to 34,000 signatures in all, by far the largest petition ever collected in the area.
When the bulging package was presented to Worthing Borough Council it was hoped that councillors would at least listen to the campaigners. But alas most were just not interested. They had already decided that the Dome Cinema had to go and that was that.
Undeterred by Worthing Borough Council’s stubborness, the enthusiastic crusaders enlisted the voluntary support of local architect James Ward-Stuchlik who drew an alternative plan for more favourable redevelopment of the area around the Dome.
The scheme involved the complete restoration of the Dome Cinema, with a second screen added in the upstairs hall to replace the bingo club which had occupied it for many years, a viewing gallery, restaurant and cinema history museum, to return it to its original purpose as a multi-entertainment complex. A covered winter garden of shops known as the Dome Arcadia was to stretch from the seafront end of Library Place linking up with the Warwick Street precinct at Stanford Square. Thirty more shops, a large hotel conference centre, 100 car parking spaces and a 40,000 sq.ft. office block were also included.
Save the Dome Campaign joint chairman Robin King was quoted in the Evening Argus (25/11/88): “This is only a first, we hope constructive, attempt to produce a solution to this 10 year planning blight on Warwick Street South. I would hope the council will take into account our ideas for the area. Our main aim is to keep the Dome and our scheme is a suggestion of how that might be done. It is not perfect but as nobody else has produced a plan since 1979 it seemed a good idea. We feel the council should let the area develop gradually, like the Lanes in Brighton or Covent Garden in London.”
This conservation-conscious plan was effectively cast aside by the council, who paid no real attention to its merits.
The council’s last plans for the area had been drawn up in 1979, and by 1988 officers were negotiating with the Southdown bus company (Stagecoach) who occupied the site to the east and north of the Dome, in the hope that they would create a new depot on land at West Durrington that was becoming available at this time.
Meanwhile, another plan was being drawn up, this time by conservationist and local historian Rob Blann who earns his living running his own garden contracting business.
Rob had recently completed his single-handed campaign to save the town’s Victorian lifeboat house, a campaign which attracted publicity on television and national press.
For his alternative Warwick Street South plan he enlisted the support of another architect, Eric Cockain, who ironically was the Worthing Borough Council Conservation Officer. The irony was that although he was employed by the council to assist in the conservation of local buildings of historical and architectural importance his employers forbade him from getting involved with the Dome because they had already decided upon its demolition. But in his heart he wanted to help, and so he did what he could, in secret.
The plans he drew up with Rob Blann included a conference and entertainment complex, and Regency-style flats as well as starter homes. All would be built around the central point of the Dome Cinema. Rob Blann visualised the early picture house complemented by a craftsmen’s alley in Marine Place and small individual shops around Stanford’s Cottage.
Reported in the Worthing Herald (9/12/88) he emphasized that while the Dome complex epitomises the life and pleasures of an Edwardian entertainment centre this would be augmented by hard-working craftsmen in the narrow alley and by the meandering lanes of shops.
Concluding, he said, “All these things complete a living heritage of Worthing.”
In 1988 Rob Blann set about saving some old cottages in Marine Place near the Dome, which were to eventually prove useful in the fight to save the Dome, something which will be explained in detail much later on in this narritive.
At the same time that he was working on his alternative plan for Warwick Street South with Eric Cockain, Rob Blann set about saving some old buildings within that redevelopment area that came up for auction.
He asked council chiefs on 11th November 1988 to buy cottages in Marine Place that were coming up for public auction, with a view to restoring them. Blann, whose great-great-grandfather used to live in one of the cottages, presented a petition containing hundreds of signatures on behalf of the occupiers and customers in Marine Place.
The properties were due to be auctioned on 29 November and Rob urged councillors to bid for the properties and restore them. But he was fearful that the council might purchase them for demolition. “Restore this area sympathetically,” he told them, “and you will be praised for having the foresight to create an economic heritage development capable of producing good income for the town.”
The council then discussed the issue in a secret session, their decision to be revealed on the day of the auction.
On the day of the auction the council were successful with a bid of £100,000 for the freehold properties and so they passed into council hands. Only one other mystery bidder opposed the council at the auction held at the Burlington Hotel.
Richard Pye of the Yellow Brick Society, who was at the auction, said, “I am pleased the council has bought it, rather than a private developer. But I hope the council did not buy it to bulldoze to make way for their Warwick Street South development.”
After the auction Rob Blann was cautiously jubilant: “ I am absolutely delighted the council has bought it, which is what I asked them to do. Now we have to keep the pressure on to see what they are going to do with it.”
Once more the famous actor Chistopher Timothy, who lived near Chichester, rallied support for the Dome Cinema by speaking at a special open day at the Dome on Sunday 11 December 1988. A guided tour was laid on to show members of the public those places of interest within the building not normally seen.
On public display at the open day was an authentic replica of the Kursaal (the Dome) as it was in 1911. Made by 73-year-old Ted Bayley, chairman of Worthing Artists’ Association, it was commissioned by Rob Blann who was impressed by another of Mr Bayley’s models of the town’s former lifeboat station.
Rob Blann’s models of the Dome and the old Lifeboat Station went on show on 3 December at the lecture room below Worthing Library when Rob Blann spoke to the Yellow Brick Society about his redevelopment and conservation plan for the Warwick Street South area.
Conservationist Rob Blann unveiled his plans for a conference/entertainment complex, starter homes and Regency-style luxury flats. All would be built around the Dome and all the existing historic buildings would remain.
The Worthing Herald reported on 9 December: “Mr Blann visualised the cinema, practically the oldest working one in Britain, complemented by a craftsmens’ alley in Marine Place and olde worlde shops around Stanford Cottage.”
Mr Blann was reported as saying, “The Dome epitomises the life and pleasures of the time.” He submitted the plan to the council, whose chief planning officer, Tony Clarke, described it as “a practical alternative” to existing plans.
The future of the recently purchased cottages in Marine Place looked bleak when, at a meeting of the full council on 15 December, Tory policy chief Councillor David Hill said the way was clear to demolish numbers 6 and 8.
One councillor who disagreed with him was Liberal Democrat Pat Lipscombe, who said, “We are getting in ideas from the public – they may be good, they may be bad. But it’s not fair to the societies if these ideas are not going to be considered properly. Warwick Street South is the best chance for years to dramatically improve the town. We should grasp this opportunity.” But her motion was lost.
One of the main stumbling blocks with the development brief for the Warwick Street South area was the fact that the council were steadfastly sticking to their ideal of one huge redevelopment for the whole area. Conservationists were arguing that a piecemeal approach was a far better way forward and that the development should evolve naturally.
To prove to the council that one huge development was not necessary and that piecemeal development could be the way forward, Rob Blann and WBC Conservation Officer Eric Cockain hatched a covert plan together.
Eric, a qualified architect, was to design plans (unbeknown to his mistrusting employers) to turn the Marine Place cottages into a sympathetic development of a house, a shop and flats within the original buildings and to be known as Blann’s Marine Mews. (Rob’s great great grandfather Tom Blann once lived at no.6)
All went to plan, Eric, gaining entrance using a key that Rob had copied from the selling agent’s key, surveyed the premises (that now belonged to the council) under cover and began drawing plans.
Once completed, a comprehensive planning application, backed by the Conservation Area Advisory Committee, and the Worthing Society, and SWOT, was submitted by Rob Blann on 9 January 1989. When it came before the planning committee for discussion it was rejected because it was premature, on the grounds that the council wanted only a development of the entire area.
(Rob Blann appealed later and the inspector allowed the appeal, a decision that conservationists had expected. The inspector agreed that piecemeal development would be alright – backing what the conservationists had always said rather than what Worthing Borough Council said.)
Unbeknown to campaigners Worthing Borough Council was having secret behind-the-scenes talks with a large developer. The results of these meetings were to be made public at a WBC Policy and Resources Committee meeting on Thursday 12 January 1989. (At that time P & R was the main council committee where all major decisions were taken.)
Briefly forewarned of this by Councillor Bert Dockerty whose daughter was SWOT’s secretary Jill Suttcliffe, the protesters hastily prepared battle plans. The protesters were Save the Dome, The Worthing Society, the Yellow Brick Society, and local conservationist and historian Rob Blann.
The developer was the Burton Property Trust, and they partnered Southdown Motor Services (later taken over by Stagecoach) who owned the bus station site by the Dome. From their presentation of their redevelopment scheme to the committee it soon became clear that they would demolish swathes of buildings in the area, including the cherished Dome Cinema along with all the Grade II listed town houses in Bedford Row, and also the town’s very first old Wesleyan Chapel in Marine Place.
They were to be replaced by yet more chain stores, a massive new Debenhams superstore and a new cinema.
At the WBC Policy and Resources Committee meeting on Thursday 12 January 1989 the council proposed to give Burtons and Southdown the sole rights for their scheme to be considered and acted upon.
In an address to the meeting Rob Blann declared, “This proposal to give these developers an exclusive opportunity to destroy what is left of the centre of old Worthing is outrageous. The most important building to retain is the Dome, Worthing’s internationally-known landmark.”
Robin King, joint chairman of the Save the Dome Campaign reminded the committee that they had collected a total of 20,000 signatures on the petition to save the cinema to date and that the more were being added all the time.
When secretary of the Yellow Brick Society Chris Hare heard that Burton’s architects claimed to have transformed ugly modern buildings into attractive ones he declared with tongue in cheek: “We intend to get a petition together to offer them the Guildbourne Centre to redevelop instead of Warwick Street South.”
Alas, the WBC committee voted to give Burton and Southdown the EXCLUSIVE opportunity for three months to prepare a scheme in co-operation with the council.
Furious at the WBC decision to give Burton and Southdown the EXCLUSIVE opportunity for three months to prepare a scheme in co-operation with the council the different groups of conservationists in the town decided that they must unite and prepare for war. Their course of action was to form a Joint Committee of Conservation Groups (JCCG) to attack the Council’s underhand methods. Under the chairmanship of Rob Blann, the joint committee with representatives from Save the Dome (Robin King), The Worthing Society (John Head) and the Yellow Brick Society (Richard Pye) agreed on all major points.
The Joint Committee decided on the name “SWOT” (Save Worthing Old Town) for publicity purposes and to refer to the area as “The old Warwick Quarter”, rather than the council’s redevelopment scheme name of “Warwick Street South”.
Under the headline “Gang of four fights to save a town’s past” the Argus of 14 February 1989 reported, “Conservation groups have joined forces to fight council plans to redevelop a town’s historic quarter. They have drawn up a battle plan demanding that buildings south of Warwick Street in Worthing are saved. The council has given Burton’s architects three months exclusive rights to submit a shopping scheme for the area. But the Yellow Brick Society, Worthing Society, Save the Dome Campaign and protester Rob Blann are against the idea.”
“A spokesman said, ‘We strongly disapprove of the council’s conduct in giving exclusive rights. We wish to see the process opened up, with direct consultations. If this does not happen, all the groups represented will refer the matter to the local government ombudsman.’”
“But council chief executive Michael Ball claims Burton’s architects should be given a chance.”
“Conservationists called for a mixed retail and residential development covering 141,000 sq.ft. But the council is considering a 200,000 sq.ft. shopping scheme, more than three times the size of the multi-million pound Montague Centre being built in Liverpool Gardens.”
“The gang of four also wants underground parking, retention of the Dome Cinema, Bedford Row blocked to traffic and a garden designed. The spokesman said, ‘We believe new buildings should complement and not overpower or obscure existing buildings. The architecture must be such that it will uplift rather than depress both the resident and casual visitor. The old quarter must become a source of pride and not a cause for shame.’”
A letter by Chris Hare published in the Worthing Herald on 17 February 1989 under the headline “Heroic handful” praised the few that were attempting to achieve so much, and made a comparison with the redevelopment of the old Town Hall, the Theatre Royal, Ann Street, Market Street and Chatsworth Road in the 1970s (Warwick Street North):
“We do not know what the outcome of controversy surrounding the Old Warwick Quarter will be. We do know, however, that unlike the last disastrous occasion when large scale redevelopment took place, we have a strong and vocal conservation lobby.”
“What is remarkable is that only a handful of people pushed this great crusade into momentum. One, Mrs Pat Baring, died some years ago, but her lone battles to save old Worthing humbled many younger people, and caused them to ask what was happening to their town.”
“More recently Richard Pye fought another lone and vain battle to save Highworth House. Since the publication of his pamphlet on the area south of Warwick Street, public interest has sparked into life. The dedication of Robin King and the tenacity of Rob Blann have inspired hundreds of people to take an interest in their town.”
“What a crying shame it is that only councillors, and not people of the calibre of these selfless campaigners are made mayors or honorary aldermen of this borough!”
SWOT enlisted the help of the secretary of the Yellow Brick Society Chris Hare and Jill Sutcliffe, a very capable member of the Save the Dome Campaign, in putting across their demands. The views of SWOT were supported by English Heritage, the Cinema Theatre Association, the Victorian Society, and the Thirties Society (now the 20th Century Society).
Conservationists weren’t alone in their fury at the council decision. An attack came from the directors of Seaward Properties, the owners of Stanford Square, who claimed to be key landowners in the redevelopment area of Warwick Street South.
In a letter to the council, Adrian Smith, the managing director said they were “extremely annoyed” at being left out of discussions. “Indeed,” he wrote, “the secrecy which appears to have been engineered is a direct attempt to make it impossible for Seaward to submit redevelopment proposals which we have been discussing with your chief officers and Southdown for a considerable time.”
He added that alternatives for the site, including the refurbishment of the Dome Cinema, should be assessed before important decisions are made.
While all this was going on, further ideas were sought to publicise the value of the threatened historic buildings. Rob Blann approached Ted Bayley and commissioned him to make realistic wooden models of the endangered buildings.
And when Rob was offered a shop window in Warwick Street, belonging to Snewins the builders, to display them, he jumped at the opportunity.
Over a period of time Rob commissioned Ted to make many models, discussing the various buildings’ attributes along the way to make sure that the replicas were authentic.
Models relating to and used in the Warwick Street south conflict included: the front of the Kursaal (Dome Cinema), interior of the Kursaal, the entire Regency terrace of Bedford Row houses made in sections and extending to a total of eight feet in length, and the old Wesleyan Chapel in Marine Place.
In addition, replicas of many more former buildings and structures were commissioned by Mr Blann and crafted by Mr Bayley. All of these beautiful models have been retained and preserved by Rob Blann and are available for show on special occasions.
Keeping up the SWOT publicity for the campaign both Rob Blann and Chris Hare set about tidying up the front of one of the endangered historic buildings blighted by redevelopment plans, the 18th century yellow brick Bedford Cottage, set back from Marine Place, that formed part of the Blann development plan that was rejected by the council. Rob and Chris cleared a truck load of old furniture and rubbish that had been dumped in front of the council-owned building. In a Worthing Herald report headlined “Campaign to save cottage” dated 31 March 1989, Rob Blann explained, “Hopefully this move will make the public realise these buildings might not be here for much longer.”
Much to the embarrassment of Worthing Borough Council a comprehensive application by the Yellow Brick Society for the listing of the yellow brick Bedford Cottage in Marine Place was successful. The grade II listing was a set back for WBC as they wanted the historical cottage bulldozed in the future redevelopment.
Richard Pye, chairman of the Yellow Brick Society was successful in getting Bedford Cottage listed. “The application was made by the Yellow Brick Society, close on the heels of a previous submission which was unsuccessful,” reported the West Sussex Gazette on 20 April 1989. “The society prepared a more detailed application but was surprised by the rapid change of attitude by the Department of the Environment.” This success coincided with the society’s first birthday.
This listing was successful in putting further difficulty in the way of any 'comprehensive' redevelopment schemes.
SWOT had been assured by the council that Burton Property Trust would consult with them during the period of three months when they were drawing up their plans. But Burtons failed to do this, and consulted no-one.
“Anger over Dome plan silence” was the headline in the West Sussex Gazette on 6 April 1989, where an article by veteran journalist Roy Affleck drew attention to Burton’s behaviour:
“Stephen Wischhusen, lessee of the Dome Cinema, said that the consultations promised to himself and the Save the Dome Campaign have not materialised. ‘I don’t understand how people can hold other people’s livings in their hands and refuse to discuss the matter,’ he said.”
His view that the Burton plan may be a fait accompli by the time it was published was supported by SWOT. Mrs Jill Sutcliffe, SWOT’s honorary secretary, confirmed that there was no feedback from the companies involved.
Her letters went unanswered and unacknowledged. Urgent phone calls from the West Sussex Gazette to the developers for their views failed to produce return calls as promised.
Architects for the property developers claimed that their scheme would end up with at least some form of cinema. In a full page feature in the Evening Argus of 26 April, David Roberts, for architects Lyons, Sleeman and Hoare was reported as saying that the present Dome Cinema could remain “until any remodelled version is complete”.
The Argus feature of 26 April, correlated by Paul Holden, stated that Robin King believed the comment of the developer’s architect to mean that a replica cinema was on the cards. At this stage Save the Dome campaigners had collected as many as 26,000 signatures to a petition demanding retention of the original building.
Mr King warned, “We do not want a fake replica which cannot possibly match the historic form or atmosphere of the original building. The Dome is virtually unique in having operated for nearly 70 years as a cinema without substantial alteration. Any redevelopment of the original building will destroy much of its historical value and rob Worthing of a unique civic asset.”
“Development plan unveiled to jeers” was the headline in the West Sussex Gazette dated 4 May 1989, when Burton Property Trust presented its plans at a special meeting of the borough council’s Policy and Resources Committee held a week earlier on 27 April.
“By 12 votes to four it was agreed that the general plan was an acceptable basis for full public consultation, but there was an assurance from the Chief Executive, Mr Michael Ball, that any other proposals for the redevelopment would be considered.”
But SWOT knew only too well the empty meanings of both “public consultation” and “other proposals for the development area would be considered”.
Under the council rules of that time, any member of the public who collected enough signatures to a petition had the right to address a committee for up to five minutes.
As a result three speakers exercised their right to do this, with the intention of replying to Burton’s proposals. But the council, fearing that this would be too embarrassing, insisted on the conservationists speaking first.
“In his speech,” reported the West Sussex Gazette, “Rob Blann alleged that a cloud of secrecy had surrounded the plan and he suspected that Burtons wanted to demolish historic buildings in Marine Place. Burtons, he said, had produced only one plan because it was the most lucrative for them. This was Worthing’s last chance to create an exciting town centre development of this magnitude.”
“ ‘From Prince Charles to Margaret Thatcher through to ordinary people there is a general swell of opinion that more consideration should be given to the man in the street rather than the developer. This town has been decimated by bad decisions. In Worthing our heritage is being sacrificed to make fortunes for property developers’.”
“Mrs Sylvia Adams of Hove, a local historian with special interest in cinemas, said that Worthing was on a stretch of coast which had played a vital role in cinema history, and the Dome should be preserved.”
“Robin King said the Dome was the oldest working cinema in the country and drew in half a million people last year. The council has spent nothing on its structure since 1969.”
“ ‘Mr Ball, the chief executive, says the council should remain neutral,’ he said. ‘They should not. They should be telling Burtons where to get off.’ “
“The two public sections of the committee room were packed, mainly with protestors, and there were frequent jeers and shouts of disapproval as the plan was unfolded by four representatives of Burtons. Mr Maximilian Lyons, architect, spoke of pedestrianisation plans and lifts to the main store.”
At the council committee meeting on 27 April Burton’s architect, Maximilian Lyons, presented the plans as if the listed houses in Bedford Row, and the Dome would be kept, but it soon became evident that the proposal would mean that the Dome auditorium would be demolished, and the yellow brick cottage in Marine Place and other listed buildings would have to go.
Mr Lyons also explained that it was only intended to keep the facades of the Bedford Row terraced houses. The practicality of this was questioned by the conservationists because of their form of construction and as it was proposed to build an underground car park beneath this area of the site.
Another proposed underground car park beneath the promenade was ridiculed by James Stuchlick. He said that because of the ground water level, it would be “like a giant concrete ship that would float out to sea.”
Mr Lyons said it was a challenge to find ways to develop the area without destroying any of the listed buildings.
Debenhams’ existing store in South Street (originally Hubbard’s department store) was also to be demolished to allow shoppers to walk through from Montague Street to the proposed huge super-store.
The vote was split on party lines: the Conservative councillors voted in favour of Burton’s while the three Liberal Democrats on the committee were against.
Councillor Bob Clare said he was bitterly disappointed and urged the committee to reject the scheme. Councillor Mrs Pat Lipscombe said the council had made a mistake in January by allowing sole rights to Burton’s and “We should have alternative plans drawn up by other developers.” Mayor-elect Councillor Bert Dockerty (Jill Sutcliffe’s father) said other developers should be invited to submit competing schemes.
The lone Conservative who favoured the conservationist view was Connie Scott. The West Sussex Gazette continued: “Councillor Mrs Connie Scott said she found it difficult to envisage the amount of traffic that would be spilling on to the seafront and what it would do to the area.”
“She was disappointed that only one scheme was being presented when more had been promised to be chosen from. If the Dome was reconstructed, as suggested, it would not then be the Dome.”
“Save the Dome campaign development officer Jill Sutcliffe said: ‘It’s like cutting the legs off an antique table and sticking them on another from MFI. The plans seem totally nonsensical. It would result in the destruction of the Dome. It would be a fake and I hope people won’t be hoodwinked into thinking they are getting a good deal,’ she said.”
“The phrase used by Rob Blann, who has been prominent in asking for any redevelopment to preserve historic buildings was, ‘Worthing is facing its biggest threat since the bombs of the Luftwaffe.’ He was speaking for what is a new campaign based on existing organisations: The Save Worthing Old Town Campaign, or SWOT for short.”
“ ‘It has been formed as a unit to protect the wishes and needs of Worthing citizens,’ said Mr Blann, ‘Our proposal is to show the reality of Burton’s plans so that we can oppose them together. We have to work quickly, otherwise the dreadful scheme will be ratified by the full council within weeks’.”
Despite the public outcry Worthing Council gave Burton’s the green light.
As a direct result of the council voting through the Burton plan SWOT called an emergency public meeting which was held in the lecture theatre under Worthing Library on 9 May.
Many were unable to get in as hundreds of people crammed in and formed a united front against Burton Group and Southdown bus company.
The Evening Argus reported the next day, 10 May: “Chairman Rob Blann said, ‘It was quite remarkable. The place was overflowing and people were standing in the aisles. There were so many we had to hold a second meeting simultaneously in the foyer. Speakers had to alternate between the two’.”
Robin King said the Dome must be restored to its original glory. The meeting of crusading conservationists was so emotionally powerful that the Worthing Herald devoted their entire front page to report it that week:
“Crusading conservationists launched an emotional campaign to get rid of ‘greedy Londoners’ for good. Action group SWOT said plans must go.”
“ ‘It is a contemptuous and bungling scheme,’ stormed Richard Pye. It’s destructive, spiritless and rampaging. It will demolish everything possible. The council should stand up for Worthing and protect its heritage’.”
“SWOT’s own architect, James Ward-Stuchlik, condemned Burton’s plans as overloaded and inappropriate. ‘I’m appalled by the scheme,’ he added. ‘There is no way the area could support it. It would mean total annihalation’.”
“Townsfolk agreed no compromise should be made with Burton’s present project.”
“ ‘We will not be beguiled or seduced,’ said newly-elected county councillor Chris Hare. ‘We have already lost many of the town’s best buildings and this plan would demolish even more’.”
Residents of listed buildings in Bedford Row slammed town hall planning chiefs for lack of notice about Burton’s plans which included bulldozing the Regency terrace, plans which blighted their properties.
Indeed, Hewitt’s estate agents of Chapel Road explained that, because of the Burton Plan, buyers were withdrawing from agreed sales in Bedford Row.
The meeting approved three aims. The first was working towards staging an exhibition of SWOT plans alongside Burton’s plans at the town hall.
Secondly, SWOT called for the town council to set up a working party to discuss the best option for the town, and it also wanted other developers to be allowed to submit alternative plans for the multi-million pound development.
“Speaking at a packed meeting of SWOT,” reported the Worthing Guardian of 11 May, “Richard Pye, chairman of the Yellow Brick Society, launched a scathing attack on the plans by Burton Property Trust and said they threatened the Dome, which was a building unique in England.”
“He added, ‘This is an opportunity for a sensitive and imaginative development. It is not an appropriate venue for a rampaging shopping development’.”
Rob Blann, chairman of SWOT and campaign co-ordinator, said the response to the first public meeting showed so many people were incensed by the plans. ‘If we all fight together we will get what is right for Worthing, and not what is right for out-of-town developers,’ he added.”
“John Head, vice chairman of both the Worthing Society and SWOT, told the meeting: ‘The council could and should produce its own plans because they are a bigger landowner in the Old Warwick Quarter than Burton’s’.”
SWOT took their protest to the streets, and picketed outside Debenhams and Burtons stores (both part of the Burton Group) with banners and placards demanding “Stop Burton’s Bulldozers,” “Boycott Burtons and save our town,” and “The Dome we like, Burtons on your bike,” and “Don’t let the Dome go for a Burton”.
SWOT supporters were out in force and residents of ill-fated Bedford Row joined the protest, reported the Worthing Herald in a full page feature on 19 May. Hundreds of people signed their names in protest against Burton’s development plans.
“Campaign co-ordinator Rob Blann said townsfolk were furious Burton wanted to bulldoze Grade II listed buildings. He went on, ‘SWOT’s support is growing hour by hour. People have gradually realised the full horror of this developer’s plans’.”
James Ward-Stuchlik, who had lived in the town since the 1930s drew up proposals for SWOT which they hoped would be displayed alongside Burton’s blueprint.
The award-winning architect explained, “We want to show there is no need to change any of the important buildings. Burton’s proposals are a complete sham. It will over-develop the site and cause huge traffic problems.”
Mr Ward-Stuchlik, who designed Regency Square underground car park at Brighton, added, “There is no way builders could put a car park under Bedford Row. The houses wouldn’t survive.”
The battle continued for some weeks with protesters trying to persuade shoppers to boycott Burton Group shops.
The SWOT committee held regular in-depth weekly meetings, mainly at the Eardley Hotel (now Crown Agents) and the Berkeley Hotel, to discuss battle plans, alternative proposals and contingency plans.
With their three months up, the Burton Property Trust was again allowed exclusive rights in presenting proposals to a special meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee to the exclusion of all others.
SWOT complained bitterly and attempted to put forward other proposals but was merely swept aside.
Frustrated at their thwarted objections, SWOT once again took to using ‘people power’ for a time, knowing that the vast majority of ratepayers were hugely in agreement with their ideals.
Demonstrations took place in the town centre with placard waving protesters marching in front of Burton retail outlets Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins and Burton menswear.
The Evening Argus of 30 May 1989 reported: “Furious conservationists have accused Worthing council of trying to kill off democracy. They are being denied the chance to display their own plans for Warwick Street South and the Dome Cinema.
Michael Ball, the council’s chief executive, is urging the policy committee to reject SWOT’s plea for its own plans to go on display in June alongside Burton’s. In a report to the committee he says giving permission could open the floodgates to other requests and would divert attention from Burton’s.”
Yet Burton Property Trust still planned to go ahead with an exhibition of its proposed plans at the Town Hall for six weeks from 19 June.
Frustrated yet again by the council’s refusal to allow any other plans to be displayed at the town hall, SWOT held a press conference at the Chatsworth Hotel where they promoted alternative and feasible conservation-friendly development plans.
The Herald of the 2 June reported: “Mr Ward-Stuchlik presented two different plans. One was SWOT’s Preferred Scheme, and the other a compromise with Burton’s proposals.”
“SWOT plans included extending Debenhams on its existing site, providing 57 new flats and retaining Bedford Row and the Dome intact. Plans would also include building a second cinema in the Dome and a new hotel and conference centre east of the Dome.”
SWOT’s other plan, the Burton Alternative, retained a Debenhams superstore as a focal point in front of Bedford Row, and all listed buildings would be saved. “Mr Ward-Stuchlik explained that they wanted to show it is possible to please residents and conservationists, and make it commercially viable too.”
At the Chatsworth meeting, owner of the hotel Councillor Michael Clinch praised the group for bringing development plans to the public’s notice: “SWOT has done nothing but good. It has got other organizations interested in what’s going on.”
“He said Chatsworth Hotel directors were extremely concerned about the developer’s plans and their effect on residents. ‘If you want to antagonise people then this is a sure way of doing it, and traffic and parking problems had not been properly addressed,’ he said.”
Meanwhile, greatly successful efforts to get the Dome listed had been undertaken by Robin King, after extensive research into its history by Sue and John Head.
It was John Head (an independent town planner) who had provided the information for the written submission to the Department of the Environment. “Everyone thought that the cinema had started in 1921 until we did some research which showed that it actually began in 1911,” he remembered. “My research at the RIBA also revealed that the architect Theophilus Allen was of some importance.”
When news broke of the government’s decision in May 1989 to make the Dome a Grade II listed property, townspeople were jubilant, hoping that the cherished Dome would now be safe from demolition.
However, their hopes were dashed when property giants Burton and Southdown said they would keep to their redevelopment plans, which effectively meant the demolition of the Dome, despite it now being listed.
But SWOT felt that the tide had begun to turn and knew that getting permission to demolish the recently listed building would not be as easy as Burtons (and many councillors) thought.