Councillors admit ‘hands are tied’ when deciding on demolition of Hornchurch’s Towers Cinema

The former Mecca Bingo, High Street, Hornchurch

The former Mecca Bingo, High Street, Hornchurch - Credit: Archant

As campaigners are left reeling from the news Hornchurch’s historic Towers Cinema building could be demolished within weeks, councillors on the panel which approved the plan tell Chloe Farand why they could not oppose it.

Protesters in front of Havering Town Hall against plans to demolish the Towers Cinema, Hornchurch

Protesters in front of Havering Town Hall against plans to demolish the Towers Cinema, Hornchurch - Credit: Chloe Farand for Archant

The decision to bulldoze one of the few remaining art deco cinemas in London – opposed by hundreds – was inevitable because councillors’ “hands were tied”, according to planning committee members.

Plans by budget supermarket chain Lidl to tear down the building – in its last form a Mecca bingo hall –, in High Street, Hornchurch, were approved by Havering Council’s regulatory services committee last week.

Now members of the panel have explained they were forced to abstain from voting, rather than opposing the plans, because of planning laws which mean they “don’t have enough power” to stop developers.

Councillors told the Recorder there were no planning grounds on which to refuse the application, because the high street landmark was not a listed building.

For committee member Cllr Graham Williamson, who abstained in the vote, this was “the killer punch”.

“In my experience, planning law is there to allow developments, even if the public are against it,” he said.

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Cllr Reg Whitney, who also abstained, said it was a “difficult” decision.

“On certain planning issues, our hand are tied,” he said.

After voting in favour Cllr Stephanie Nunn said: “It is a shame as it has upset so many people but all avenues were explored and we have to look at the criteria that we have to obey by.”

Cllr Lawrence Webb also abstained, as he was against the demolition.

“When you sit on planning, you cannot exercise your conscience, but you have to be guided by the law,” he said. “As local councillors, we don’t have enough power to stop these sort of things happening.”

Site owner Lidl confirmed demolition would be “a matter of weeks not months”.

Residents who have been battling to save the building for more than a year said they were “devastated” by the news.

Nearly 1,000 people supported the campaign to preserve the building on Facebook, with more than 340 signing a petition.

Campaign leader Hayley Johnson went the extra mile to save the 1930s cinema and contacted Everyman Cinema CEO Crispin Lilly, who expressed an interest in the site in a letter presented to the committee.

“I am gutted. On the night, I felt councillors had given up,” she said.

“All of Hornchurch was behind us to save the building, but it was not enough.”

Campaigners wanted Lidl to preserve the historic facade of the building, but the company’s head of property for east London Olu Johnson told the committee that would be incompatible with the chain’s layout model and budget.

But some residents welcomed the new discount shop and Cllr Steven Kelly said it would be beneficial for the area, a view shared by committee chairman Cllr Robby Misir and Cllr Melvin Wallace.

“Disappointed” Cllr Linda Hawthorn was alone in opposing the demolition, as she hoped for a deferral, allowing the committee to scrutinise Lidl’s final plans.

Chairman of the cinema and theatre organisation David Trevor-Jones added: “Without any doubt, this was an important art deco listable building and there are not that many better than that.”

He added claims the building could not be listed because of alterations were “rubbish” and criticised a lack of expertise when the assessment was carried out.