Eagerly spurred on by the successful application that awarded the Worthing Dome it's status of becoming a listed buildingof nationally important historic and architectural interest SWOT continued its strident efforts.
Desperate to show people that there was another way forward despite being gagged by the council, SWOT wanted to put their message to as many Worthing residents as possible. With this aim, a booklet was produced by SWOT and funded by advertisements.
Entitled “Life or Death for the Heart of Worthing?” it’s eight pages featured the Dome Cinema and outlined SWOT’s proposals. It was distributed free to 20,000 households in the town.
By this time Robin King’s stalwart ‘troops’ had amassed no less than 30,000 signatures to the Save the Dome petition.
With SWOT exerting much pressure, the Council agreed under duress that a special presentation of the ‘conservation’ way forward could be given by SWOT at a Policy and Resources committee meeting on 1st June 1989.
A well-prepared illustrated presentation made by John Head, Jill Sutcliffe and architect James Ward-Stuchlik was co-ordinated by Rob Blann. The star of the evening was Jill who concluded the presentation with heart-felt pleas to the councillors, requesting that a working party be set up of councillors, representatives from Burtons and SWOT to examine the best way forward.
Her determined and emotional rendering was answered by Councillor Brian Lynn who made a successful proposal that the working party be set up.
The Argus of 19 June reported: ‘Conservation watchdogs are celebrating a major victory over the Warwick Street South shops plan --- following a surprise U-turn by councillors. But they say the war is not yet over.’
SWOT was successful in getting substantial television, radio and national newspaper coverage. One such occasion was on the 10 June when the Dome featured in a half page article in the Independent newspaper under the headline, “Treasures by the sea for which the bell tolls,” promoting the ideals of SWOT, in which Jonathan Glancey wrote, “The case of the Dome is a sad one: sad because the delightful, fanciful and filigree seaside architecture and design that so characterised Victorian and Edwardian Britain have been vanishing steadily in an age ostensibly concerned with conservation.”
Local press and media covered the pressure group’s campaign at every step of the way, and every twist and turn. On 16 June the Worthing Herald devoted a whole page to a Dome feature by SWOT secretary Jill Sutcliffe, who questioned the council’s obstinacy over the Burton plan, “Why doesn’t the council take advantage of its dominant position and make an effort to give its ratepayers a choice?”
The public pressure began to work, for the council made another decisive U-turn. They agreed with SWOT that the Regency terrace of houses in Bedford Row should not be demolished and also that it should remain residential.
The front page of the Herald on 30 June reported: “In a shock 11th hour move Worthing Borough Council has effectively sent would-be developers Burton Property Trust and Southdown back to the drawing board – just three days before their scheme was due to go on public display.”
At the Policy and Resources meeting of the council it was resolved that a working party be set up to explore the alternative ways forward regarding the Warwick Street South redevelopment area and the Dome in particular, and it was further resolved that the working party should include councillors, Burton and Southdown, and the Joint Committee of Conservation Groups (SWOT).
But things were going on underhanded, for by the time the Policy and Resources Committee reported to the full council meeting 23 June 1989 the wording had been deliberately changed to exclude SWOT from the working party, the result of a conspiracy between leading councillors and chief officers..
More pressure was needed to try and get SWOT included in the forthcoming talks. To gain more publicity for this, SWOT’s leader, chairman Rob Blann, commissioned retired painter and decorator Ted Bayley to construct more large models of threatened or demolished buildings to complement those of the Dome and Bedford Row for public display.
A fighting fund was set up at the Woolwich Building Society and a public appeal made to sustain the battle against Burtons the demolishers, oops, the developers.
To further spread the word to a wider audience and highlight the plight of the Dome, in July 1989, Rob Blann published hundreds of copies of two historic postcards depicting the entertainment centre in its early days, with proceeds going to the fighting fund.
Using much exertion SWOT managed eventually to pressurise the council into allowing them to take part in the forthcoming Working Party.
After some delay, the inaugural meeting of the Working Party, decided on nearly eight weeks earlier and set up to thrash out a development acceptable to all parties, was held in the town hall’s main committee room 26 July 1989. Councillors and representatives from SWOT were told at the Wednesday evening meeting that the commercial viability of the scheme would not be acceptable to Burtons and Southdown if Bedford Row was saved and remained residential (as the council had now decreed). SWOT had prepared two alternatives to the Burton plan, that included shops and offices, but these were unacceptable to the developers.
A compromise proposal was the only likely outcome and chairman of the Working Party Harold Piggott was keen for this to be achieved, or so it was to be believed. At this time. Burtons agreed to return in September with a modified plan incorporating the Regency terrace of houses in Bedford Row and the Dome.
The struggle to save the Dome became a truly international one with the iconic outline of Worthing’s Dome appearing in newspapers and magazines read around the world. In August, news of the fight to save the threatened Dome spread to Greece. On 30 August 1989 the Dome campaign featured in the Kathimerini, an Athens daily newspaper.
It carried a story about what it called “the oldest cinema in Europe” and said that news of the likelihood of shops being built where the cinema is “awakened a thunder of protest by local people and the Press.” Apparently, a Greek journalist had seen a story about the Worthing Dome in a British national newspaper which mentioned Rob Blann as chairman of the fighting campaign. The journalist wanted to contact Mr Blann and so wrote to him.
When Rob Blann received the letter he noted that it had been addressed simply “Rob Blann, Worthing” but thanks to the Post Office it found its target, and by return he sent information to Athens. The journalist obligingly sent a cutting to Rob Blann but it was nearly two weeks before the article was translated into English.
Many weeks went by and still there was no date set for the second working party meeting which was supposed to take place in September with Burtons revised plans.
Then during the last week of September (1989) there was cause for much celebration when Burtons announced that they were quitting. The voices of ordinary folk of Worthing had been answered and common sense had prevailed, for the time being at least.
Blazened across the front page of the Worthing Herald dated 29 September 1989 were the words BURTON QUITS. Burton Property Trust withdrew its multi-million pound plans for Worthing’s Warwick Street South area, saying it had already invested a lot of time and cash in its original plans and it was not prepared to go back to the drawing board as the council had wanted.
“We’re delighted,” said SWOT secretary Mrs Jill Sutcliffe, “Burton’s plan was not good for the town as a whole, and perhaps now we will get a more mixed development. We’re not complacent. The fight isn’t over yet. We won’t be happy until there is a nice development around the Dome which leaves it and Bedford Row intact. People are becoming increasingly aware that the Dome is a major asset to Worthing. It’s the only building that can promote Worthing on an international scale.”
Following Burton’s withdrawal, council chiefs prepared to draw up a development brief or blueprint for the future and to seek another developer for a comprehensive scheme, and vowed to work closely with conservation groups this time.
Meanwhile, council officers produced Worthing’s Draft Local Plan at the beginning of November 1989 following two years of preparation. On the Warwick Street South area (or Old Warwick Quarter as SWOT had named it) its stated aims were “Protecting the Dome cinema and Regency terrace Bedford Row, providing it makes financial sense. The council would like to see a sympathetic development of the Warwick Quarter, incorporating historic features.”
In answering the plan, conservationist Rob Blann’s views on it were published in the Worthing Herald on 10 November 1989. He said that he was “cautiously pleased” but would like to see the document “firmed up”, with the council saying it WILL do certain things – rather than using the “wishy washy” phrases “should” and “if possible”.
“On the face of it I agree with a lot of the ideas and principles but I have reservations. Likewise with the Dome and Warwick Quarter. Regardless of finance, these buildings are vital parts of Worthing’s heritage. They must be saved and a sympathetic development of small shops, offices and homes brought in.”
At the beginning of December 1989 Stephen Wischhusen, the lessee of the Dome Cinema, lodged plans to give the cinema, a major facelift. There was concern by some on SWOT about using the wrong colours, spoiling the existing state of the cinema and destroying good seating.
In a report in the Worthing Herald dated 8 December 1989 Mr Wischhusen said, “The present seats were in fact bought second-hand in 1958 and are therefore not original.” But SWOT’s planning consultant and vice-chairman John Head advised that as those seats were in situ at the time the building was listed, then they cannot be removed or replaced without the proper permissions.
As for the colouring, local historian Rob Blann stated, “I agree that the interior walls should be washed off to find the original colours and redecorated to high standards.” This was later done under the supervision of the Council Conservation Officer Eric Cockain, and redecoration was carried out closely in accordance with the original scheme.
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 idea of one huge redevelopment for the whole area. SWOT was 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 re-submitted his plans for planning permission for Blann’s Marine Mews, a development encompassing the now-listed Bedford Cottage and numbers 6, 8 and 10 Marine Place, plans that had been rejected by the Planning Committee 12 months earlier.
Again the council turned down the application when it came before the planning committee. It was refused as expected on the grounds that it was premature and developed only a part of Warwick Street South area. But Rob was not deterred and he immediately lodged an appeal against the council’s refusal of his application, which was not to be resolved until the following year.
Following Burton’s withdrawal, the council commissioned Hillier Parker to prepare a development brief for the Warwick Street South area. A draft was produced in April 1990 and put out to ‘public consultation’ from May to July.
Conservation watchdog SWOT registered constructive objections, but Southdown Motor Services Ltd (Stagecoach), owners of land adjoining the Dome, felt the brief was too restrictive. Both, however, felt that the Dome should be excluded from the Brief and dealt with separately.
Because it was unlikely that redevelopment would take place in the near future, the council resolved, in October 1990, not to proceed with the marketing of the area, and as a consequence the draft development brief was taken no further.
With the preparation of the Worthing Local Plan, the Warwick Street (South) Informal Plan was, in 1990, rescinded although it was retained as supplementary planning guidance.
In the Local Plan (later adopted in 1994) it stated that the council “wished to secure the preservation and long term future of the Dome, Bedford Row and other listed buildings in the area, insofar as this is practicable and consistent with the council’s overall objective of securing the improvement of the area.”
“In the case of the Dome, the council has accepted that urgent repairs are necessary to the building, and has resolved to attempt to secure its improvement in advance of the wider redevelopment of the area.”
The council again commissioned Calder Ashby, consultant building surveyors, to carry out a further survey of the Dome, this time to estimate the cost of repairs necessary to make the building wind and watertight and in a safe condition for the next five years. They arrived at the figure of £250,000.
In January 1991, “the council agreed that one of its key tasks for the year should be to resolve the future of the Dome, if possible, without costs to the borough’s chargepayers.”
The appeal inspector’s decision on Blann’s Marine Mews in Marine Place was announced in February 1991. “Planning blight lifted at Warwick Street South” was the headline in the West Sussex Gazette of the 14 February 1991.
The government inspector overturned the council’s decision of February 1990 in Rob’s favour, so that the conversion of the property into Blann’s Marine Mews could go ahead, but this was only in theory as the property belonged to WBC and not Rob.
But the importance of this decision was that it meant that there was no planning principle standing in the way of piecemeal development of the neighbourhood south of Warwick Street. It lifted 20 years of planning blight, by allowing development of individual sites. It ended the council’s blanket refusal of permissions on the grounds that they were premature, a view no longer valid since the inspector’s decision.
The council once more had egg on their faces but they still refused to implement what was a commercially viable project and further refused to sell the property onto a builder who would implement the changes.
The Cinema Theatre Association held its AGM at the Dome on Sunday 10th March 1991 where it was stated that “world population knows the Dome Cinema as the location of the film ‘Wish You Were Here’ in 1988, starring Tom Bell and Emily Lloyd.”
The local elections in May 1991 saw the departure of the Dome’s chief antagonist, Leader of the Council David Hill, and the arrival of new councillors, including Ian Stuart, a former joint chairman of the Save the Dome Campaign.
A growing number of councillors and planning officials were warming to SWOT and its preservation ideals. Indeed, during May 1991 Planning Officer Tony Clarke was quoted as saying: ‘I can assure you that the council has no intention of demolishing the Dome, and partial demolition is not acceptable either.’ Compared to a few years earlier this in itself was a major breakthrough for the conservationists.
Interviewed by Chris Hare for Worthing’s Review magazine of 1st June 1991, Jill Sutcliffe, one of SWOT’s most active committee members, stressed that the Dome’s unique status lies in it not only being a cinema, but in it being the last of the Edwardian Kursaals. “During that period, many of these multi-entertainment complexes were built in seaside resorts. Today only the Dome survives.,” she said.
Jill believed that the setting up of a Trust to administer the Dome was the only way forward. “I would like to see a partnership between the council and the community. SWOT has people of diverse talents who could offer a great deal to a Trust. We have an accountant, a solicitor and a town planner. It will be cheap and efficient to set up. We already have the backing of the Civic Trust and the Cinema Theatre Association.”
She also believed that a restored Dome, offering many facilities as well as cinema, would greatly enhance the town. “It will be a very prestigious project for Worthing,” she said. Furthermore it is one which will not be a drain on the town’s Chargepayers. “A Trust, because of its charitable status, can raise money in ways that neither a local authority or a private developer can. We are ready to go. All we are waiting for is the council to say ‘yes’.” But it proved to be many years before that consent was given.
SWOT METAMORPHOSED INTO THE WORTHING DOME PRESERVATION TRUST later in 1991 with four trustees: Rob Blann, John Head, Alan Brown and Chris Slade. Rob Blann was elected chairman, John Head as vice chairman and Alan Brown as the Trust’s solicitor. Regular constructive meetings continued on a weekly basis at venues including the Windsor House Hotel, which was very close to where Chris Slade lived at 1 Windsor Road. Chris was always very busy working long hours for his graphic design and PR business, and so Rob held most of the meetings at the Windsor House Hotel to facilitate Chris’s attendance.
“Call to protect Dome” was the headline of the Worthing Herald dated 29 November 1991. “Conservationists say the best way to protect the historic Dome Cinema is through a charitable Trust. They believe it is unlikely the Dome would be protected for future generations if the Edwardian picture house was sold by the council to the private sector. Now conservationists, led by Rob Blann, have formed the Dome Preservation Trust to protect the listed cinema. They say the Trust would be able to draw on cash not available to the private sector, including low-interest loans from the Architectural Heritage Fund, grants, donations and gifts.”
“In a report to the council’s Policy & Resources Committee yesterday by council officers, councillors were told more details were needed before the idea could be considered. A Working Party had been set up of six councillors, to liase with conservationists, the Dome tenants and the Cinema Theatre Association. If the Dome was sold to the Trust, it would be run as a limited, non-profit making company with charitable status. Shares could be sold to the public and it could be self-funding by 1997.”
“The Trust would like to see: • The future of the Dome as a cinema assured. • The building restored and protected. • Greater use of the Marine Parade building, in sympathy with its historic status.”
In December 1991, following the establishment of the Trust, the council agreed that the Dome Working Party should investigate the possibility of the Trust being granted a lease on the Dome Complex, if the Trust could demonstrate its professional, commercial and financial credibility.
On 27 December 1991, the Herald headline was “Battle is on to save the Dome from decaying.” “Conservationists face an uphill battle to protect Worthing’s historic Dome Cinema from the ravages of time. They were dealt a major blow earlier this month when hard-up Worthing Borough Council sliced in half its Dome repair budget. Councillors agreed they would pay just £110,000, half the cost of keeping the Edwardian picture house wind and watertight over the next five winters.”
“Now the Worthing Dome Preservation Trust is deciding how to raise the necessary shortfall. The Trust wants to take over the running of the listed building, one of the town’s most famous assets. The idea is still being examined by the council – but conservationists are sure the idea could work and the cinema would be self-supporting within five years.”
There was no National Lottery at that time to fund good causes and so fund-raising was an uphill struggle. “Trust chairman Rob Blann said it would be difficult to find the money, but they were determined to succeed. He voiced disappointment at the council’s decision, saying they had spent large sums on other entertainment venues, including the Connaught Theatre, Pier Pavilion (now called the Pavilion Theatre) and Aquarena swimming pool.”
“ ‘I do not want to knock those venues, but the policy is inconsistent,’ said Mr Blann. ‘The council has never spent any money on the Dome – they’re cutting it before they’ve even spent it. The Dome will be self-sufficient before long. The Connaught Theatre is never likely to be so’.”
Mr Blann said conservationists had devoted endless time to the project and were still negotiating with the council. More details of their bid are expected in the New Year.”
As the Trust’s project involved taking over the entire Dome complex, exhaustive negotiations were held between the Trust and the existing lessees of the cinema operation and of the Bingo club upstairs, as they would then become lessees of the Trust.
The Trust offered Stephen Wischusen, the cinema operator, a new 12 year lease with an initial annual rent of £6000 with responsibility for external repairs passing to the Trust.
While the Trust offered Messrs A and R Miele, the two brothers who owned the bingo club, a new five year lease, a shorter lease than the cinema because the Trust had eventual plans for a second cinema screen to replace the bingo.
The working party met on several occasions, A formal, detailed business plan was prepared by the Trust for the commercial restoration and running of the Dome complex. Entitled the Dome Project the comprehensive document eventually won the support of the working party.
At what was to turn out to be the last sensible meeting of the working party, agreement had been reached whereby the council at last satisfied themselves that the Trust could implement their plans. This agreement was subject only to the sight of a report which was to be prepared by the Trust’s structural engineers. In fact the very last word at the meeting was from Chief Executive Michael Ball instructing his assistant Sheryl Grady to prepare a long-term head lease whereby the Trust would take over the running of the Dome Complex.
“Health check starts at the Dome Cinema” was the headline carried by the West Sussex Gazette dated 6 February 1992, where Roy Affleck reported: “Scaffolding has been installed round Worthing’s controversial Dome Cinema as a first step to a thorough health check. It is enabling structural engineers to investigate the state of the building and the internal steelwork before reporting to the borough council and the Dome Preservation Trust which are now working together to preserve the old cinema. This is the first exhaustive check on the building in 80 years.”
“A statement by the Trust, which is about to launch a public appeal for repair funds, says the current move is all part of finding out the likely cost of saving the Dome. Chairman Rob Blann said this week: ‘We are very pleased to be coming out of the woods in what has seemed like an interminable wait for all the right support and go-aheads. If all goes according to plan we shall shortly be able to let the public know of specific plans for the building, how they can help us to make it happen and what a fully restored Dome building can do for the town’s residents and visitors’.”
“Mr Blann is convinced that, despite all the added difficulties caused by the recession, the Trust can achieve its aim. It was a question of how long it would take. The Preservation Trust has applied for charitable status.”
West Sussex Gazette dated 6 February 1992 continued: “On Thursday, the borough council again agreed to a contingency provision of £110,000 representing half the cost of maintaining the Dome for five years in a wind and watertight condition, the same amount being expected from the Trust.”
“At the same time it agreed to spend £36,340 during1992/1993 for the first year repair work, half the amount estimated. The other half would be expected from the Trust. Some councillors protested that too much was being expected of the Trust.
“Councillor Ian Stuart said the council was being ‘grossly unreasonable’ towards the volunteers. It was not being fair.”
“Councillor Eric McDonald said there should be evidence that the money could be found by the Trust.”
“Councillor Harold Piggott said the council was being guided by the Working Party. He knew that there could be further grants. The new financial situation had altered the whole scenario. ‘We want to see them come forward with their side of the bargain,’ he said.”
“The council put some suggestions to the Working Party. It would be asked to consider whether, if the Trust could demonstrate its professional, financial and commercial credibility, ‘it would be reasonable to protect the interests of the borough’s chargepayers by granting an initial five year lease.’ The Trust might eventually take on a long lease.”
Suddenly, and without warning, the lessee of the Dome’s cinema operations, Crewe-based Garrick House Ltd, who ran cinemas in Crewe and Burgess Hill as well, went into liquidation with debts estimated at £150,000, following a winding up order made in the High Court on 29 January.
Brighton-based accountants Neville Russell, were appointed liquidator.
Stephen Wischhusen was managing director of Garrick House and his lease with the borough council had actually expired some years earlier and he was only continuing as lessee on a year by year basis under the Landlord and Tenant Act. But the liquidator had the idea that there was a substantial lease worth selling.
At this point in time the Trust decided, in order not to lose the cinema to an unsuitable operator, it had better put in its own bid to the liquidator. The Trust bid £25,000 for the lease in the hope that it would be able to raise the money from a bank loan against the lease. There were nine offers and the Trust’s bid failed.
However, the West Sussex Gazette of 27 February 1992 reported: “Chris Ashurst for the liquidator hopes to secure the future of the cinema and has received nine bids for the trade and business of the cinema which, he claims, rest in his company. This is disputed by the council’s lawyers and negotiations between the two parties continue.”
In the meantime, the liquidator installed
Robins Cinemas, a small chain responsible for nine picture houses, to run the cinema, and it continued to be managed by Bill Maellor-Jones (Wischusen’s manager) as before. Other businesses operating within the building, (the bingo club upstairs and the Rendezvous Café to the side of the entrance), were not associated with the cinema or liquidator in any way.
The Trust had been involved for six months in negotiations with the council and latterly with the cinema’s leaseholder Stephen Wischhusen, in order to reach agreement on the expected cost of renovation and the level of support the council could offer the Trust. The latest Working Party meeting of council officers, councillors and members of the Trust had agreed that the Trust had fulfilled the criteria set for the bestowal of a lease for an initial period of five years, providing an opportunity to review fundraising and restoration before granting a longer lease.
The Trust had hoped to work in conjunction with Garrick House and its managing director Stephen Wischusen, but now they felt that the aims of a new cinema management organisation could be very much more in line with the Trusts’s future development of the cinema, as an essential ingredient of the Dome building itself. The Trust’s ultimate aim was to run the cinema and to channel the profits into funding the restoration.
“Trust bids to take over cinema” headlined the Worthing Guardian. Chairman Rob Blann said, ‘It seems very logical to us that if we can profit from the cinema within the building then all of the operating profits can be channelled back into returning the building to its former glory. Our Plans were already moving towards this end in our dealings with the former lessee of the cinema and the council. The recent occurrences could accelerate the situation if the Trust has the opportunity to run the cinema and have more direct control over fund-raising for the building from within the building itself’.”
When the working party next met (for what was to be the last time) with a full report from the Trust’s structural engineers Bedford & Eccles of Brighton (recruited by Rob Blann they agreed to work on a no fee basis with the hope of securing a contract when the restoration was to take place), it was obvious that the council’s position had changed.
It was clear that no work had started on the preparation of a lease. The councillors suddenly changed their tune and poured scorn on the Trust and its objectives. The reason for this sudden about-face was no doubt because the council saw an unexpected opportunity to gain vacant possession of the cinema This, together with the great interest shown by bidders for the liquidator’s phantom lease, led them to believe there was a money-making opportunity here. The Trust in effect became an inconvenience and had the rug pulled from under its feet.
The Worthing Review magazine dated 29 February carried the headline “Who runs the Dome? Confusion reigns over right to run historic local cinema.”
This latest complication surprised borough council solicitors who were in the process of handing over a lease on the building to the Worthing Dome Preservation Trust.
Solicitor Yvonne Atkinson said, “There is confusion over what the buyer is buying. The council want to establish that the liquidators have the right to sell the cinema operation on behalf of Garrick House Ltd, the collapsed company owned by former leaseholder Stephen Wischhusen. Since 7 February we have been asking for proof that Wischhusen held the lease in trust for Garrick House Ltd, which has not been provided.”
The liquidators claimed there was no legal problem in auctioning off the lease.
But since the Dome Preservation Trust was supposed to be set to take over a 100 year lease on the whole building from the borough council, an even more confusing situation was in the offing – where the Trust as failed bidders for the cinema rights become the new landlord of the successful bidders.
“Trust tries to take over Dome future” read the Worthing Herald headline of 27 March 1992. The Trust came up with a double bid to try to secure the future of the Dome Cinema. They feared owners Worthing Borough Council might sell the freehold of the whole Dome complex, stripping the town of a major asset. Instead they wanted to enhance the entertainment centre, using an Edwardian theme, to create a seafront focal point.
Trust chairman Rob Blann addressed the borough’s policy committee on 26 March, asking the council to:-
• Serve notice on the leaseholders, saying the council required the cinema for its own use. The Trust would then run the cinema on the council’s behalf.
• Grant the Trust a head lease for the whole complex so that conservationists could start urgent repairs.
Presenting a petition to committee members, Preservation Trust chairman Rob Blann suggested it could run and restore the cinema as a charitable trust, formed by business and professional people. “We are eager to get on with the job of restoring and enhancing the entire Dome complex for the good of the town,” he said.
Councillor Bert Dockerty said, “I am appalled at the suggestion of selling the freehold. I think we should consider giving the Preservation Trust a long lease because it has sources of revenue which aren’t available to ourselves or a private developer.”
Councillor Ian Stuart confirmed that the Dome Preservation Trust was within reach of securing the building when the operator went bust. That resulted in the liquidator selling the rights to screen films to an unnamed cinema chain.
The proposal to lease the building to the Trust was lost by 10 votes to five after chief executive Michael Ball advised against it, saying it was too early to make a decision and further discussions would have to take place. But a resolution was passed calling on officers to explore selling the Dome’s freehold.
Then in a dramatic U-turn at the meeting of the full council on 16 April the Dome Preservation Trust managed to scupper moves to sell off the building’s freehold.
The recommendation by the Policy & Resources Committee to sell off the freehold was thrown out when councillors waived party allegiance, a rare happening in Worthing council chamber, and voted 17-9 in favour of retention.
Victorious Trust chairman Rob Blann was reported as saying, “I’m glad the council isn’t going to sell the ‘family silver’.”
The much-respected veteran journalist Roy Affleck was ecstatic in his weekly column in the West Sussex Gazette: “People power wins the day” blazed the headline. “That decision not even to consider selling the freehold of the Dome Cinema complex may have seemed just another debate. In fact it was historic by Worthing standards and must go down in the civic books as a milestone.”
“What was so different and why my enthusiasm? It was a stunning success for people power. This time the view of the council’s most powerful committee, Policy & Resources, was not rubber stamped. It was not even deferred. It was thrown out, well and truly. The P & R committee has made hundreds of good decisions. This was not one of them.”
“A large proportion of the population had made it abundantly clear through a massive petition that it wants the Dome retained as a cinema, with no ifs or buts. Following that declaration of popular demand, hard-working and selfless volunteers had continued the fight and shown themselves ready to shoulder much of the responsibility of the future of the building. The direction that the council was asked to move in could not have been clearer.”
“Despite that, a fortunately small and and out-voted proportion of the full council wanted the possible abandonment of the Dome to outside forces, to remain on the agenda. ‘Keeping all options open’ sounded a fair enough argument, and at first hearing actually seemed sensible. It was not, because there was a huge loophole – the place could, after all, pass out of the council’s (the people’s) control.”
“Did some councillors (and officials) think that following the massive fight to control the destiny of the Dome, an entrepreneur was really going to be allowed to make decisions and cash in on what is obviously a highly profitable concern? The fighters for the Dome, and most of the rest of the population, I would say, would rather not take the risk thankyou. We would rather retain the goose and its eggs under our control.”
But the council was now looking at leasing the Dome to any interested party and not just to the Trust as had been previously agreed. The council agreed to an amended recommendation that officers should explore the possibility of a long lease “to any interested parties if satisfactory assurances can be given as to the continuance of the cinema at the Dome, and as to the proper repair and preservation of the complex as a listed building.”
The council was told that there had been discussions with two companies interested in a long lease or acquiring the freehold. There was to be a special meeting to discuss urgent building works and the cinema tenancy. Meanwhile, negotiations continued with the liquidators who had installed new tenants, and appropriate action would be taken by the council to terminate the new tenancy.
The Trust kept up the pressure on the council and a report by Julia Peet in the West Sussex Gazette dated 3 September 1992 declared: “Worthing Dome Preservation Trust has renewed its appeal to the borough council for its bid to run and restore the cinema to be taken seriously. Chairman of the group Rob Blann warned that unless the Trust was awarded the lease, the building may not survive.”
“The Trust had been due to take on a head lease of the complex when the cinema operator went into liquidation and receivers took control. Since then a number of small operators have put in offers for the business, while the council has become embroiled in a legal battle with the liquidators.”
West Sussex Gazette report of 3 September 1992 continued:
“Recent meetings have been held between interested parties and the borough council’s steering group. But the Trust has complained it has not been included in the discussions and wants a chance to put its proposals to the council.”
“Mr Blann emphasized that the aim of the charitable Trust is to secure the complete restoration of the entire Dome complex and not just to operate cinema facilities solely for private profits. He fears the Trust may be brushed aside in favour of the private companies, and has warned: ‘If a private cinema company takes on a head lease, it is going to be difficult for them to find the £1million needed for the restoration of the building, and make their own private profits as well’.”
“ ‘If the Trust has it, all the profits go towards restoration. It cannot work otherwise. We would provide continued and enhanced cinema facilities for the town. If it is given the lease, the Trust will set about gathering funds to finance the restoration’.”
The Dome was still shrouded in scaffolding in September, which had been in place for more than six months at a cost of about £100 a week to the borough – a total of nearing £3000 thus far. The Trust was concerned at the ongoing cost to the town’s community charge payers, but the council said it had left the scaffolding in place so that prospective lessees could carry out their own inspection.
The scaffolding was originally erected to enable the Trust and the council to assess the amount of work needed to the tower, but given the direction events took since, it was decided to leave it in place. Chairman of the Trust Rob Blann was quoted as saying that had the lease been given to the Trust as was originally the plan, then none of this would have been necessary: “We would have been some of the way towards restoring the Dome by now.”
October came and went and the council was still engulfed in a legal wrangle with the liquidators over the lease on the cinema auditorium. “Another eight months have been wasted” headlined the West Sussex Gazette of 15 October 1992.”
“Money spent on the legal battle which shrouds the future of Worthing’s Dome could be better spent on the historic cinema’s long overdue repair and restoration, according to members of the Preservation Trust set up to save the building. Chairman of the Trust Rob Blann has demanded details of costs incurred so far by the borough council, together with an estimate of the total bill expected at the end of the litigation. He has suggested the council return to the situation last February, when the Trust looked set to secure a head lease on the whole complex.”
“ ‘We see no reason why our proposals should not go ahead on the basis already agreed by the borough council,’ said Mr Blann. ‘Whether or not the council is successful in its current litigation with the liquidator, the best outcome for the future of the Dome as well as for the benefit of the townspeople would be for the Trust to take on a head lease’.”
“ ‘We firmly believe that no real progress with the restoration can be made without the involvement of a charitable Trust dedicated to this purpose. Another eight months have now been wasted, during which time the Trust could have made real progress with the restoration’.”
Yet the council still refused to do anything to halt the decaying condition of the Dome complex. The Worthing Herald of 6 November 1992 reported Rob Blann as saying: “Repairs are now long overdue. The Dome is a listed building and essential repairs are needed and should not be ignored. The council seems to be letting the building decay because it wants to get rid of it. It is refusing to carry out repairs even when it has an obligation to do so. The Trust believes it can offer a way forward and wants the council to grant it a head lease so it can start fund-raising for restoration costs.”
Eventually, the council managed to oust the liquidator, who was trying to sell a non-existent lease. In December that year (1992) in an out-of-court settlement the council won back control of the cinema. Just days before the receivers had taken control, the Trust had been poised to reach an agreement with the council, which would have secured the future of the Dome complex. The West Sussex Gazette of 31 December 1992 reported: “Now the Trust’s chairman Rob Blann is calling for a return to that situation. ‘Come on, let’s get round the table and talk again,’ he urged the council. Mr Blann sees a partnership between the council, the Trust and a cinema operator as the way forward. ‘It seems there is no private venture that is capable or willing to invest the hundreds of thousands needed,’ he said.”
On 1st February 1993, borough councillors met in secret behind closed doors to discuss the future of the Dome complex, talks from which the Trust was excluded. The Trust had hoped it would at last be granted a 125 year lease or even given the freehold, so that it could save the old building, pumping in as much as £1million for restoration work.But it emerged that the council planned to award the lease to a commercial cinema enterprise instead. In the meantime, Robins Cinemas were still operating the cinema on a temporary basis.
Some councillors condemned the move as a “dash for cash”. Councillor Ian Stuart said: “I was bitterly disappointed with the conclusions of the committee to largely exclude the Dome Preservation Trust.” Councillor Bert Dockerty promised to continue to push for the inclusion of the Trust in discussions. Meanwhile, Trust chairman Rob Blann remained optimistic that plans his group were drawing up in conjunction with Robins Cinemas would be adopted.