Multiplex cinema could form centre-piece of Horsham’s new West End - but at what cost?

Shelley Fountain at Christmas
Shelley Fountain at Christmas
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A new multi-screen cinema is being mooted as part of the continued evolution of what is being dubbed Horsham’s new West End.

With a John Lewis store and a major new Waitrose set to revitalise the area, serious thought is also being given to a multiplex nearby.

Gordon Lindsay (Con, Billingshurst and Shipley), the cabinet member responsible for finance, said ‘it would be great if you had a very good commercial cinema there.’

A new multiplex cinema could also help stem the tide of town centre decline in the face of online shopping, said fellow cabinet member Roger Paterson (Con, Pulborough and Coldwaltham).

“We are looking at the whole of the town planning question at the moment because there is an absolutely unstoppable gale blowing through all retail which is of course the internet.”

Why visit the town centre to purchase something that can be bought cheaper with a mouse click from the comfort of your own home, questioned the cabinet member for the local economy.

“What we have to do is start attracting people into town centres to keep them alive with other lifestyle occupations, so obviously entertainment is one of those things.”

Asked if a Bishopric / Springfield Road site, near the Shelley Fountain area would be a fantastic spot for a multiplex cinema, Mr Paterson said: “Yes, that is certainly part of it, and I think there are tremendous opportunities for other cultural offerings and some really longer term planning in terms of the way you try and re-populate the centre of town to give yourself a captive audience to make sure you do have good footfall and quality of life.”

However, David Moore of the Horsham Society fears a new multi-plex cinema could spell the end for the council’s premier entertainment attraction, The Capitol, in North Street.

“The big risk with a multi-screen cinema down at the Bishopric is that you basically kill the Capitol, which would be a disaster,” said the Society’s chair.

“The Capitol serves a very good function and attracts a lot of people, has very easy parking, and I think at this point in time a multi-screen cinema going down there would be bound to take a huge amount of business away from The Capitol and probably would lead to closure.”

Jonathan Chowen (Con, Cowfold, Shermanbury and West Grinstead), HDC’s cabinet member for leisure services, including The Capitol, recognised that the current theatre’s cinema offering is central to its viability.

“The revenue is definitely from the cinema side and also the profitability comes from the cinema,” said Mr Chowen.

However, he remained more positive a cultural offering could be maintained in the face of increased commercial competition from a new cinema.

He said: “The Capitol would have to change its programme to react and compliment whatever was offered at a multiplex cinema in the town.

“But we would then have an improved offering for residents, so I think we will just have to see what is the impact and try to work around it.”

The cabinet member added: “But there would be a benefit to the whole economy of the district and the West End part of Horsham having a multiplex there, and of course from the council’s point of view they do have a financial investment in that part of town too.

“There could be swings and roundabouts - the income at the Capitol might drop, but the overall income to the authority might go up and the economy of the town might improve.

“You have got to keep an open mind on that and we still might be able to come up with something complimentary at The Capitol, but obviously it would be a risk and quite a change if there was a multiplex.”

Leisure services are a discretionary service by Horsham District Council, over and above what it is statutorily required to deliver by law.

With all budgets and services under review in the face of ever-declining Government grants, some cabinet members question whether the local authority should continue to fund theatres and cinemas.

Mr Lindsay said: “We are really being forced into saying should we be spending money on subsidising cinemas and things like that because you could actually say that throughout the country, because local authorities run an awful lot of leisure facilities it has destroyed the leisure market for commercial companies.

“The right way to do it might be to say we’ll let the private companies run it and what we do is help subsidise those people who cannot afford to pay for it - that is just one way of looking at it.”

Mr Chowen revealed that under the council’s Aspire budget reviews ‘all options remain on the table’ and the potential savings from reducing or ceasing services are all being fully investigated, in line with the council’s duty to provide best value for residents.

The findings of a similar, but ultimately rejected review in the recent past, mooted relocating Horsham Museum to Park House to realise the value of number 9 Causeway, and redeveloping the Drill Hall site in Denne Road for residential usage.

“We’re doing another one but much more detailed looking at all the facilities,” said Mr Chowen.

“We want to be sure we have looked at every option in the light of the current economic climate and also changes in Government funding.”

But does Mr Chowen, in charge of leisure services, feel the local authority has a responsibility to provide entertainment?

“I think it is important that a district has live theatre, music and dance where ever possible.

“Cinemas obviously could be easily provided by the private sector, and I don’t have any problem with that, but it is the live performances and trying to put the two together that is a huge burden on the council tax payer.

“I don’t mind if it was provided by a charity or Trust of some sort -I have no great hang up that local authorities have to provide everything.

Mr Chowen added: “Live theatre in particular does seem to need a lot of public financial support if it’s going to be there.

“And I think for a district as flourishing as Horsham it would be a great loss if there wasn’t the ability of live theatre.”

With reference to the review of all services, Mr Chowen said: “This is a discretionary service and even if we are happy to stay with the status quo, and keep it in-house, we should have rigorously looked at all other alternatives.”

The County Times has approached ODEON Cinemas but was informed ‘no comment’.

What do you think? Is a commercial multi-plex cinema a good idea for Horsham? Or are you worried it threatens the traditional council-funded entertainment offer in the town?

Email ct.letters@jpress.co.uk or leave a comment below.

For more on this story see Thursday’s County Times. To contribute email theo.cronin@jpress.co.uk or call 01403 751 233