Just over four years ago I noticed a friend of mine had joined a Facebook group about “saving Westgate Hall”. I did not even know where it was, despite having lived in Canterbury for a while. I was curious and went to see what it was. Hidden just behind the high street, it is a very large old Drill Hall. It does not look great. Its large windows have been blocked and it’s been painted a strange shade of pinkish apricot. And it’s been neglected. It needs a brand new roof, and more.
As the mother (back then) of a baby and a toddler, one thing that had surprised me about living in the centre of Canterbury was that there wasn’t any sort of “village hall” type of building where we could go when we needed to leave the house on a rainy day and meet other parents and kids. And the Westgate Hall seemed perfect for that role. And there was something very romantic about the idea of turning that pink elephant of a building into a space full of light and people. And before I knew it I got completely sucked into the campaign to save the Westgate Hall.
What gave me the courage to think that such a campaign might work was the fact that, through Facebook, I met two extraordinary people, David Terry and Imogen Morizet, who had the energy, know-how, skill and vision to turn what had been, until then, a campaign against council cuts into something very different. The idea was to separate the council’s decision to stop funding the building (it was being run at a loss as a conference/fairs venue), from the need to demolish it and create more car parking spaces.
Facebook and other contacts quickly provided an amazing team of highly skilled and motivated volunteers who started work on creating a group, the Westgate Community Trust (which is now a registered charity), that would offer to take over the building and run it as a sustainable community building. And that’s what we did. We approached Canterbury Council with our proposal and, to their credit, they listened and took us seriously. We were given three months to present them with a business plan to prove that we “could run the Westgate Hall sustainably, for the benefit of the community, and at no cost to the council”. And this is what exactly what we did.
There was a bit of luck involved, too. As it happens the building is very large and, while we had a very clear business plan for the large main Hall, finding a viable use for the ancillary wing of the building was less straightforward. Out of the blue we got a message that an “entertainment” company were looking for a building in the centre of Canterbury and that they would be interested in part of the Westgate Hall. It turns out this entertainment company was Curzon Cinemas and having lived near one of their cinemas in London, the idea of a Curzon in the centre of Canterbury was incredibly attractive. They were interested in the half of the building we were struggling with and they made an offer to purchase a lease from us at a reasonable market rate.
So when we went back to Canterbury Council we had a very solid business plan. We proposed that they leased to us the Westgate Hall for 99 years for a peppercorn rent. We would then sub-lease half of the building to Curzon cinemas, who would pay an upfront capital sum, which the Trust would use to refurbish our half of the building. Having Curzon involved would have additional benefits too (as well as the obvious attraction of having a high quality art-house cinema to go to!), there are clear synergies between the cinema and the community hall. And, again to their credit, the council unanimously voted to accept the Trust’s proposal. This was in July 2011.
I don’t know why we ever believed the legals to formalise this deal were going to take three months. It has been over two and a half years! But, despite huge frustration at times, all three parties have persevered and this week we have all signed the lease. Should be completing very soon, and the builders should be able to start then. It is amazing to have got here.
It is easy to associate a campaign like this with one or two figureheads and give them all the credit. But this has been the work of a lot of people, we think over 200 people have volunteered and helped in one way or another. Many local businesses have donated goods and time. The Westgate Hall was built 101 years ago by public subscription. And local people have given it a new lease of life, I think as a city we should be very proud of this.
If I ever have any doubt about human nature, looking around the table when we have a Westgate Community Trust directors’ meeting is guaranteed to dispel it. It is a truly impressive group of determined, intelligent and good hearted people. It has been a huge privilege to work with them and be part of the team.