THE transformation of Newton Abbot’s Alexandra Theatre can begin after councillors unanimously backed new plans to redevelop it.

The theatre’s charitable community benefit society has been given the green light to build a new glass atrium cafe bar on the side of the building.

But at the same time it must return the building from its current two-screen cinema layout to its original single large auditorium – an option the society is not keen on.

It had presented a business case explaining that it would prefer to keep the ‘two-screen’ layout, with the smaller area continuing to show films while the larger auditorium beneath operated as a cinema and a theatre combined.

But it was told that permission to build the new atrium depended on restoring the single large auditorium, and a report to the committee explained that external grant funding would have to be found for that.

The aim is to present film, music, dance, theatre and comedy in the revamped building.

The new atrium will be needed to generate the income to support the theatre, which is known as the Alex.

It will ‘cocoon’ some of the building’s distinctive features such as its arched window frames, and keep them visible through the glass.

The benefits of having the theatre restored would outweigh the harm of building the atrium on the side of it, the committee was told.

Architect Jeremy Newcombe said: ‘The atrium is essential for the upkeep of the Alex as a cultural hub. It will provide space for people to meet and mingle.

‘It will be an open and attractive front of house.

‘It will once again be the cultural heart of Newton Abbot.’

Cllr Andrew MacGregor said the condition demanding that the society creates the single auditorium was a ‘poison pill’ designed to make it difficult to make the project viable.

He said the atrium on its own would improve the overall look of that area, and added: ‘It improves the external appearance of a building that looks practically derelict at the moment.

‘The public benefit of getting the atrium in and removing the existing extension would be massive.

‘At the moment the whole area is grey, dull and unkempt.’

But officers said that if the condition was removed, they would advise councillors to refuse the application rather than pass it.

Cllr McGregor’s bid to remove the single-auditorium condition was defeated, and the committee was unanimous in approving the application which included it.

The founding director of the Alexandra Theatre Newton Abbot Community Benefit Society, Richard Daws, who is also leader of the opposition at Teignbridge District Council, said: ‘The planning committee passed the society’s plans for the Alex, but sadly added a condition to make the project much less likely and misrepresented the position of the applicant.

‘The condition, to only allow the addition of the atrium if all the internal works are done to create a single space, was both small minded and misinformed.

‘Officers and councillors themselves outlined it is not the job of the planning authority to conclude how a business is viable, yet they then backed an amendment that would only allow Newton Abbot to have a mixed use arts hub if millions were invested into the project to create one space.

‘I can’t help feeling that Lib Dem councillors couldn’t find any planning reason to halt this application, but backed a condition that makes much less likely to happen.

‘I wonder at which point the Lib Dem’s risible claim to be “a community led council” will be put into practice.