Lewisham Council faces Picturehouse pressure over historic Ladywell Playtower

Ladywell Playtower
The Playtower was one of the UK’s first public baths, but has been disused since 2004

Update: Lewisham Council picked Curzon’s scheme to convert the Ladywell Playtower into a three-screen, 220-seat cinema complex with restaurant and housing.

Elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock said: “Of the 4 strong bids we shortlisted I am persuaded that the proposal from Curzon is the right one to choose.”

Read on for the background to the decision…

Lewisham elected mayor Sir Steve Bullock will face protests on Wednesday as he and his cabinet decide whether or not to hand over crumbling Victorian swimming baths to controversial cinema chain Picturehouse.

The firm is one of four groups hoping to take on the Grade II-listed Ladywell Playtower on Ladywell Road. One of the country’s earliest public baths, the building has been disused since 2004, and is now considered “at risk” by Historic England.

Picturehouse is competing with the rival Curzon chain to refurbish the building and reopen it as a cinema. Two other bids, from Goldsmiths university and one involving the operators of Peckham’s Bussey Building arts complex, are also in the running.

But Picturehouse – which has cinemas in Greenwich and East Dulwich – has come under criticism for refusing to pay its staff the London Living Wage, resulting in strikes shutting down its Ritzy cinema in Brixton, a long-running dispute which has spread to other Picturehouse venues. 7,500 people have signed a petition against Picturehouse taking on the Playtower, and organisers are planning to protest outside Lewisham Town Hall in Catford ahead of Wednesday’s cabinet meeting.

By contrast, Curzon has paid London Living Wage – which was increased last week to £10.20/hoursince 2014. Last year, the firm opened a small cinema inside the Goldsmiths campus in New Cross, the first in the borough since the Catford ABC closed in 2001.

Brixton Ritzy strike - April 2014 by Wasi Damiju
Strikes against Picturehouse’s pay policy have shut down the Brixton Ritzy and other cinemas (Photo: Wasi Damiju via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Picturehouse wants to build a five-screen cinema and a “pop-up box park-style structure”, obtaining funds from a Heritage Lottery Fund bid; while Curzon and its construction partner Guildmore want to build a three-screen cinema with restaurant along with 20 homes, a nursery and healthcare facilities.

RJK Properties/Copeland Park, which operates Peckham’s Bussey Building, envisages a “mixed-use cultural quarter” in its bid, submitted with Hither Green-based builder Hillman; and Goldsmiths wants to run some of its masters courses from the Playtower.

Creating a major new arts complex for south-east London would be a coup for Lewisham Council, particularly as the borough is competing against two of its neighbours – Greenwich and Southwark – in City Hall’s London borough of culture competition.

But it was also one of the first Living Wage authorities, back in March 2012.

Council officers have scored both Picturehouse and Curzon joint top in their assessment of the four bids, with Picturehouse coming top in a public consultation. Picturehouse is also favoured by the Lewisham Building Preservation Trust and Ladywell Traders Association.

But the Victorian Society the backs RJK Properties/Copeland Park bid, opposing both the Curzon and Picturehouse bids because they would break up “the internal 1st class pool hall space and the impact this would have on appreciating the space’s original volume”.

Whichever scheme is chosen, the £4-5million project to restore the Playtower is not expected to be finished until 2020 or 2021.

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