Plans for revamp grade II listed Hippodrome to go before councillors

Plans to restore the Hippodrome are due to go before councillors for a decision next week.
Former Brighton Hippodrome, Middle Street, Brighton image by Voice of Hassocks on WikimediaFormer Brighton Hippodrome, Middle Street, Brighton image by Voice of Hassocks on Wikimedia
Former Brighton Hippodrome, Middle Street, Brighton image by Voice of Hassocks on Wikimedia

The building’s owner wants planning permission for a £20 million scheme to restore and renovate the grade II* listed building in Middle Street, Brighton.

Now, almost two years after the plans were lodged with Brighton and Hove City Council, a report has given official backing to the proposals.

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The final decision rests with members of the council’s Planning Committee – made up of 10 councillors – at a meeting next Wednesday (3 April).

If councillors approve the scheme next week, officials will be asked to finalise various details – including financial contributions and a pledge to employ dozens of local construction staff.

The Hippodrome was long neglected until Matsim – a family-run property firm – bought the former variety theatre and bingo hall in September 2020. It had stood empty for 14 years.

They made the derelict property watertight, fixed the roof and started to restore the fabric of the building, spending more than £5 million of their own money in the process.

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But they reached a point where further restoration required planning permission and listed building consent.

The plans include a renovation, restoration and refurbishment that would lead to the creation of a “multi-format performance space” with some “extensions” on the site.

The additions include a building fronting Ship Street, up to seven storeys high, to contain an “aparthotel”. The project would also add a restaurant or café with a rooftop bar and terrace and a ground-floor shop.

The old fly-tower would become “additional rehearsal / performance space” and the neighbouring Hippodrome House would become a bar and members club with an outside terrace and aparthotel rooms.

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The proposed flexible performance and events space would be capable of hosting musical and theatrical performances, providing a venue for conferences, exhibitions and banquets and other uses including cinema, lecture space and wedding venue.

The circle would include fixed raked seating for 400 while the auditorium floor would be flat. The circle would also give access to an enclosed “rooftop” bar and external terrace.

The ground floor would include a bar and restaurant, with a frontage in Middle Street, catering for 60 people inside and 44 outside – on the pavement. A drinks licence has been granted.

The proposed seven-storey aparthotel building, with its frontage in Ship Street, would have 62 rooms while Hippodrome House would include 16 more aparthotel rooms. The £20 million budget does not include the aparthotel.

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Matsim director Simon Lambor, 34, said: “We are excited at the prospect of finally being able to get on with the full scheme of works to get the venue back open as soon as possible.

“It’s been a tough few years to get to this point but it will all be worth it to see the place back open and full of life again.

“The decades of neglect haven’t dented the incredible atmosphere – and the old girl is eager to be hosting sold-out performances again.”

A report to the Planning Committee said: “The renovation of the Hippodrome and its restoration as a flexible events and entertainment venue would be strongly welcomed.

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“(An ‘optimal viable use’) report concludes that use of the auditorium as a flexible multiple purpose event venue would be optimal.

“The strategy underlying what is described as the ‘theatre of varieties’ concept is outlined to

  • make the building as flexible as possible, able to stage performances of many types in layouts of many types
  • make it possible for the building to operate as a venue that has people using it on a continuous basis by day and evening rather than one which only opens for performances and events
  • make it easy and attractive for people to spend money on food and drink which would be a main source of entertainment and of revenue

“The Theatres Trust maintains an objection to the proposal and does not agree that the proposed scheme would represent the optimum viable use for the building.

“A number of other consultees and representations have put forward a similar viewpoint that the use as a ‘lyric theatre / large-scale theatre’ would represent the optimum viable use of the site and that such a use would be realistic and viable.

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“A lyric theatre is a theatre that can accommodate touring productions of musicals and other music-orientated genres like dance and opera.

“One disadvantage is that the Hippodrome was not originally designed as a lyric theatre, rather one ‘in the round’.”

As a result, seating capacity might not be enough to make it economically as viable as the Matsim plan. The report sets out other obstacles, including the current reliance by lyric theatres on articulated lorries to service modern productions.

The report added: “The Hippodrome has been vacant for 16 years and is in very poor condition, appearing on Historic England’s ‘at risk’ register and the Theatres Trust register of theatres at risk.

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“There is particular concern for the long-term future of the elaborate (Frank) Matcham-designed plasterwork to the auditorium.

“The nature of the building and the significance of its interior, particularly the auditorium and foyer, means that options for its future viable use are comparatively limited.

“Given the vulnerability of the building, a proposal that seeks to retain the auditorium as a single space and bring it back into use a public venue – together with appropriate development of the unsightly car park area – must in principle be very much welcomed and given considerable weight as benefits.”

The report also said: “The proposed use as a flexible performance and events space can be considered to be the optimal viable use of the site.”

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National Highways has withdrawn an earlier objection in which it had concerns that performances at the venue might add to traffic jams on the “strategic road network” – notably the A23 and A27.

The report going before councillors said: “The proposed development is considered to sustain and enhance both the architectural and historic significance of the buildings.

“And the use proposed is considered to be suitably viable and consistent with the history of the site and the ongoing conservation of this ‘at risk’ grade II* listed building.

“The proposed development would contribute to the regeneration and vitality of this part of the Old Town Conservation Area and would also improve the public realm and make a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness.

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“The report does recognise that there will be some harm resulting from the development, in particular, impact on amenity to a number of residential occupiers in the vicinity of the site and heritage harms to Hippodrome House and modest harm to the conservation area.

“While the harm of the proposals are acknowledged, it is recognised that the proposals do bring forward the restoration of the grade II* listed building which has fallen into disrepair.

“Therefore, on balance … the harm … is considered to be outweighed by the public benefits of the proposal.”

Thirteen objections were submitted in response to the original plans, including from residents, and there were five comments in support and four general comments.

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When the plans were amended, the council received 22 objections, five letters in support and two general comments.

The Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas, has an office across the street and sent two letters in support.

In her second submission in April last year, she said: “I was pleased to see that, after additional consultation, Matsim have amended their plans to take into account feedback regarding aspects which will increase flexibility of large performance space in the future.

“It’s welcome to see a developer work in collaboration with campaigners and historic preservation organisations in this way and, on that basis, I am further encouraged to support Matsim’s application.”

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A letter in support, redacted by the council, said: “Matsim are to be applauded for a design that respects and protects the amazing heritage of one of Brighton’s greatest buildings and makes it a venue for future generations.

“Matsim have already proved, with work already carried out, that they understand the history and importance of the Hippodrome.

“And now progress needs to be made in order for all of the people of Brighton and Hove to once again enjoy this historic venue.”

Objectors raised several concerns including the size of the aparthotel, the prospect of overlooking, the design, a loss of outlook and potential noise.

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One objector whose details were also redacted said: “The height of the new building is too high and will definitely block sunlight and much-needed natural light from an area of narrow streets and twittens.

“There are some small pockets of peace and rest in the area which are much appreciated by residents and visitors and these will be dominated and overlooked by this building.”

The Planning Committee is due to meet at Hove Town Hall at 2pm on Wednesday (3 April). The meeting is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.