THE curtain has been brought down on plans to build a massive new cinema in Newton Abbot and restore the town’s beloved old theatre instead.
It’s a success for campaigners, as Teignbridge Council leader Martin Wrigley (Lib Dem, Dawlish NE) proclaimed: “We’re going to Save the Alex!” – echoing the battle cry of local people who took to the streets and signed petitions to save the Alexandra Theatre.
He said: ‘This will give us something that will be utterly astonishing and a transformational change for Newton Abbot.’
The council’s executive committee voted unanimously to refurbish the ‘Alex’ after hearing that the new cinema plans were both a ‘dead duck’ and a ‘white elephant’.
A new grassroots advisory group to explore future options will also be set up including councillors and community representatives.
Claire Holden, who led protests against an earlier scheme to tear out the interior of the theatre and threatened to barricade herself inside if that would help save it, said it is ‘incredible’ news.
She said: ‘This is fantastic.
‘Finally they are listening to the people and there is light at the end of what has been a very long and dark tunnel.
‘Thank you to everyone who has supported us along this journey, it just shows what can be achieved when people and communities stand together.
‘And It looks like I won’t need to chain myself to the building after all!’
Cllr Wrigley said the cinema plans had reached an ‘impasse,’ while Cllr Stephen Purser (Con, Teign Valley) said: ‘The whole thing to me was a white elephant before, and now perhaps it’s a dead duck as well.’
He said it would be better to build badly-needed new homes on the site next to the Alexandra which had been earmarked for the new cinema.
But Cllr Wrigley said the £9 million government funding destined for the town could not be used for that.
Objectors were up in arms when the cinema plans were unveiled, as the striking new four-screen ‘box’ building finished just feet from the existing Market Hall, which is also listed.
They claimed it was too dominant in the street.
Planning officers said a smaller cinema could be acceptable, but Cllr Wrigley said he could not endorse recommendations for that proposal with no tenant in place.
And, he said, any new plans involving refurbishing the Alexandra would need to be drawn up quickly to make sure of a share of the government cash.
He explained: ‘Time is not on our side. We need to choose a way forward where we can deliver something.
‘At some point Newton Abbot needs, and deserves, and will want, a new cinema, but now is not the time and here is not the place.’
He believes the restoration of the ‘Alex’ could be an acceptable use of the government’s Future High Streets money.
Its original features could be restored, and it could have a 260-seat auditorium for films, streaming events, touring plays, conferences and local amateur dramatic groups.
He said it would come with continuing maintenance costs in years to come.
But he added: ‘It would give us something for the money that would be quite spectacular.’
The recommendation will now go to Teignbridge’s full council for final approval at the end of November.
Cllr Richard Keeling (Lib Dem, Chudleigh) summed up: ‘We have to listen to what Newton Abbot residents are saying. I think we need to save the Alex.’
The South Devon Aliiance’s Liam Mullone, councillor for College Ward, said:’The horrifying plan to put a shipping container cinema in Market Square, gut the Alexandra Theatre and turn it into a glorified Slug and Lettuce is now officially, 100 per cent dead and buried.
‘The Alexandra can now move towards public ownership, a modern makeover along the plans put forward by Jeremy Newcombe, and a future at the heart of Newton Abbot’s cultural life.’