Edinburgh’s Picture House given stay of execution

Picture: Ian Georgeson
Picture: Ian Georgeson
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ONE of Edinburgh’s most historic live music venues could be saved after councillors expressed concerns about the prospect of it becoming a superpub.

The Picture House, which has played host to some of the biggest pop and rock names over five decades, was given a surprise stay of execution after a heated debate over its fate.

A decision was delayed over the scale of protests about the possible conversion of the building into a new branch of the Wetherspoon chain and fears about a possible rise in disorder in the capital’s west end.

Council officers have been asked to check the legal grounds for a possible refusal of a change of use of the venue, which has a cultural heritage stretching back to 1923, and provide exact details on the capacity of the proposed pub.

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Police chiefs and environmental health officers are to be summoned to give evidence to councillors after claiming that the Wetherspoon pub will create less antisocial behaviour than a live music venue.

And councillors are to go on a site visit to see the building for themselves after 13,400 people signed a petition calling for the venue on Lothian Road to be saved.

David Bowie, Queen, Status Quo, Genesis, AC/DC, The Smiths, R.E.M and Orange Juice are among the acts to have performed at the venue when it was known as the Caley Palais in the 1970s and 1980s.

Although it was later operated as a nightclub for many years, it was revived as a live 1500-capacity music venue and opened under a new guise as the Picture House in 2008.

However the venue was closed down in the wake of the collapse of entertainment giant HMV and was later bought over by pub giant Wetherspoon, which already has five other large premises in the city. The former cinema, which has been lying empty since the beginning of last year, was also used to host gala premieres in the early years of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

The city’s planning committee was told that the proposed pub would be open from 7am every day of the week and be operating until 1.30am at the weekend. But an official report recommending approval for Wetherspoon’s plans said the police believed that the building’s existing use “had the potential to create more antisocial behaviour issues than a public house and would be more difficult to police.”

Planning officer Elaine Campbell told the hearing that 140 separate objections had been lodged with the council, on the grounds of the number of food and drink establishments that already exist on Lothian Road, and the prospect of the superpub sparking more noise and antisocial behaviour.

She added: “Lothian Road has a mixed character and is known for containing a high number of bars and public houses. It is identified as a street with an over-concentration of these uses.”

However Ms Campbell admitted to councillors who queried the lack of information in the report that she did not have a “vast knowledge” of the history of the building and its various uses over the years.

Planning chair Ian Perry said: “The report we had was not very good, there was a lot of information missing that the committee needs to know. This is not about any kind of comparison. It is really about whether a superpub is suitable for this area, that’s the only thing the committee can consider. There is no policy at the moment that protects the Picture House.”

Murray Ross, spokeswoman for the Save the Picture House campaign, said: “I’m astonished that the police have not objected to the change of use to the building. I’m sure there must be enough legal grounds for turning down this application based on the over-provision of pubs in this area.”

Speaking after the planning hearing, Norma Austin Hart, vice-convenor of culture at the council, said: “I’m very pleased that the planning committee has decided to continue this application.

“I will be lobbying very hard to ensure that they can hear the views of representatives of the music community about the potential loss of the Picture House venue when this comes back before the council again.”

SNP MSP Marco Biagi said: “I share the concerns of many music fans that a unique and much-loved music venue might be replaced by a chain superpub, which would be a damaging blow to Edinburgh’s live music scene.

“The council have made positive noises about supporting the local music scene after coming under criticism from those in the industry. But changing noise enforcement to encourage live music while allowing the loss of existing cultural gems would hardly be seen as a consistent or a joined-up approach.

“I hope that the council now takes seriously its commitment to the local music scene by listening to the community and rejecting this proposal after they have taken additional evidence. They should then do what they can to see the venue reopened with the capacity to host bands, as there is a clear desire to see.”

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