Lewes Repertory Theatre given permission to turn court into theatre

Lewes Magistrates' Court
Lewes Magistrates' Court

A scheme to turn the former Lewes Magistrates’ Court into a theatre was given the go ahead by the South Downs National Park Authority this week.

It granted planning permission to Lewes Repoertory Theatre at its meeting on Thursday February 12 in Midhurst.

But developer Quora, which has also been given planning permission to demolish the court and build a Premier Inn hotel, told the Sussex Express work would start in December.

In a speech made to the planning committee, campaigner Vic Ient said: “The development [Premier Inn] flew in the face of the concept of the National Park, the conservation area of Lewes and the wishes of the local people.

“It is a very great pity that the members did not have the opportunity to review the theatre application alongside the hotel development in December.

“However, there may be a very slim chance for this cultural centre.

“It could be that the negotiations between the Ministry of Justice and the overseas offshore company do not conclude. Or that Whitbread’s decide they have enough Premier Inns all round the country.

“It would be wonderful to see a significant cultural and arts centre spring up from the ashes of this debacle.”

Mr Ient said an arts centre and theatre at the redundant courthouse would be a perfect use for the building.

He said the arts centre would include playgroups, music, dance and theatre facilities as well as good quality employment and training in the production of radio, film, theatre and tv programmes.

The theatre proposal would provide even more jobs and would enhance the town, he added.

Organisations such as the Theatre Trust and the South Downs Society supported the theatre proposal, as did Lewes Town Council.

But a Quora spokesperson said: “Following the committee resolution in December, Quora has worked hard with the SDNPA to ensure the legal agreement has been signed which enabled the planning permission to be issued on the 2 February.

“Quora will now be completing its purchase of the site from the Ministry of Justice.

“We intend to hold our first Community Liaison Group meeting shortly and start the site preparation to allow site works to commence in the early summer.

“We are delighted that now the planning permission has been issued it is full steam ahead for our proposals.”

Chair of the South Downs National Park Authority Margaret Paren said: “Lewes is a distinctive and vibrant market town and the largest market town in any national park in the UK.

“We take our role as planning authority for it very seriously. This is the fourth time our Planning Committee has considered a proposal for this site and they have visited it on a number of occasions.

“Having examined the evidence and listened carefully to those speaking both for and against this new application, after a short and informed debate they voted in agreement with the officer’s recommendation to grant permission for this application.”

The South Downs National Park said anyone could submit a planning application for a site so although it was unusual, it was not unheard of, to have two separate applications from different groups for the same site.

It explained every application was judged on its own merits so having more than one made no difference to the committee’s decision on either.

Both applications could be approved but only the legal owners of the site could decide which approved scheme to pursue, the SDNPA said.

The Planning Committee considered another application for the Lewes Courthouse site on 11 December 2014.

The application, from Quora Ltd included the demolition of the courthouse and redevelopment of the site for mixed-use comprising flexible retail and leisure uses and a hotel.

They voted by a majority to grant planning permission subject to a legal agreement and conditions.