Does any other English town or city have a worse record for allowing its buildings to fall into disuse and decay than Brighton and Hove? Can any equal the record for the length of time that prime sites in the town centre have been left to rot?
Take places of entertainment, which are, after all, one of the key features of a seaside resort. A few have managed to survive, none more magnificently than the Theatre Royal. Opened on 27 June 1807 in the newly created New Road, it remains the city's foremost theatre (at least until the Hippodrome re-opens). But this is not a review of the city's theatrical history; it concerns the number of venues that closed, remained empty for years, were demolished, leaving empty sites for more years. Far too many of them.
Close to the Theatre Royal was the Oxford Music Hall, which opened in 1863. It survived a fire, rebuilding, extension, conversion to a cinema and several name changes before it closed as the Paris Cinema in 1962. It was offered to the embryo University of Sussex as an arts centre. It stood empty for five years, in one of Brighton's busiest streets, before being demolished and replaced by offices. Five years is too long? Not in this city.
Frank Matcham, the doyen of theatre architects in the later Victorian and Edwardian period, designed the Alhambra Opera House and Music Hall, which opened on King's Road, just to the west of the junction with West Street, in 1888. It became the Palladium Cinema in 1912, was briefly an Odeon, reverting to its popular name as the Palladium until becoming a relatively early victim of cinema closures in 1956. It was empty for seven years and demolished in 1963. The prime seafront site remained derelict for a decade until the Brighton Centre opened there in 1977.
Another Rank-owned cinema was the West Street Odeon. Opened to great fanfare in 1937, it closed in 1973 when Top Rank Suite opened down the road. It survived longer than the SS Brighton next door, which was razed to the ground in 1965, leaving a bare-earth car park for 24 years. The Odeon stood forlorn for another 17 years before the site was cleared.
Few will remember the Cinema-de-Luxe, dating from 1910, which stood on the bottle-neck section of North Street, almost opposite Ship Street. A fire caused its closure in 1942. A plan to re-open it in the late 1950s came to nothing. After 20 years of dereliction, it was demolished in 1962, Brighton Corporation having bought it to allow road-widening.
The Brighton Railway Works, just to the north-east of the station, were demolished in 1969 (having been occupied by the Isetta bubble car company from 1957 to 1964). The station gained a bare-earth car park for the next 30 years or more until work began on construction of the New England Quarter, which is still ongoing in 2016.
Of course, the one that really takes the custard cream is Jubilee Street. The site was earmarked for clearance in the Brighton (Jubilee Street) Confirmation Order, a compulsory purchase order made in parliament in 1939. Clearance of the site began around 1952-53. After decades of furious objection after objection by amenity groups and spinleless dithering by council administrations (who meanwhile got away with erecting ghastly tower blocks), the Jubilee Library was opened in March 2005, more than 50 years after the site was ready for development.
Many more instances could be cited.
And still the sclerotic cycle continues: delays and objections, the scaling back of ambition, the defeat of vision.
Change and decay in all around I see. . .
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.