Why the Old Odeon Needs to Become the New Victoria

Submitted by Tom Pate on Mon, 7 Mar '11 9.37am

The old Odeon cinema (formerly the New Victoria) on Clerk Street, Edinburgh, designed by renowned cinema architect WE Trent, is the best surviving art deco cinema in Scotland. Listed grade B, both Historic Scotland (HS) and Edinburgh City Council consider it of national importance and worthy of A listing.

Although still profitable, it closed in 2003 and was sold (as part of a 'job lot' with the Glasgow Odeon) to property developer Duddingston House Properties (DHP). The value put on the Edinburgh building by DHP at the time was £1.5m. Apart from two brief spells as a fringe venue during the Festival, it has been unoccupied ever since.

The original 2,000 seat single auditorium exists behind the later sub-divisions (it contained five cinemas on closure) and could be restored. One day it surely will be, as it was arguably Edinburgh's finest In the 'atmospheric' style of a Roman amphitheatre, it boasted a magnificent proscenium framing a huge stage, private boxes along the back of the stalls, statues in classical style lining the walls, and a magnificent vaulted 'sky' sparkling with stars. It was built and designed to impress, and it did.

Down the years, DHP have submitted various proposals for the building, mostly involving demolition. But the building's listed status includes a presumption against demolition, unless no alternative remains. In 2008 Edinburgh City Council accepted DHP's argument that all alternatives to demolition had been explored, without success, and approved their latest plan to demolish the auditorium (the most significant part of the building) and build a hotel. The plan was referred to Historic Scotland (the usual procedure for listed buildings) and, following advice from independent experts, HS concluded that the proposal should be 'called-in' for determination by Scottish Ministers.

The Reporter appointed to advise Minsisters concluded: "not all possible alternatives to demolition have yet been explored. I recommend that listed building consent be refused". It was.

The facts, currently, are these. DHP turned down an offer of £2.75m for the building from a restoring purchaser in 2006. Another offered £1.8m in 2007, but DHP refused meaningful negotiation. Recently, three further offers have been submitted, including one at £1.6m, which is exactly the value put on the building by a leading firm of Edinburgh commercial property consultants. These credible and fully-funded offers are from people who want to return the Odeon to cinema/arts use, without public subsidy, operating on normal commercial lines.

Yet, in its recent announcement to the press, DHP insisted that it had "been unable to find a buyer". The truth is, of course, different: there is no willing seller, as the Odeon is worth much more to DHP if demolished, which is why it has re-submitted its plan for listed building consent to Edinburgh City Council.

But they have a real fight on their hands.

Last week, Southside Community Council presented a petition to Jenny Dawe, Leader of Edinburgh City Council, calling for compulsory repairs to the building, and for a Compulsory Purchase Order to allow transfer of ownership to someone prepared to restore the building for cinema/arts use. The petition collected 4,300 signatures in just four weeks through local shops, cafes, pubs and the internet. Together with an earlier petition to Historic Scotland, a record-breaking 10,000 signatures have been pledged in support of restoration.

On Saturday this week (12 March) the Community Council is promoting a free 'Film 'n' Fireworks' evening in St Patrick's Square next to the Odeon, to raise public awareness of the demolition threat.

MSPs Sarah Boyack, George Foulkes, Robin Harper, Margo MacDonald, Ian McKee, Mike Pringle and Shirley-Anne Somerville, as well as MPs Sheila Gilmore and Ian Murray all back the campaign to save the building, as do authors Alexander McCall Smith and Ian Rankin, Real-life local hero, Alex Arthur, WBO Interim Super Featherweight Champion, is also a key supporter.

So there is a real determination to save this wonderful building, and have it back where it belongs - at the heart of the Southside community and our capital city, and open to all as a thriving centre for cinema and the arts.

Ultimately, the man behind DHP is Sir Tom Farmer. This son of Leith, deservedly respected for his philanthopy, can remove this threat to one of our capital's finest buildings at a stroke, and it would be to his credit if he did so. However, if we have to fight on, we will, and we expect to win.