Dreams of a silver screen coming to Crystal Palace were given a major boost last night, as town hall planners turned down an application to turn the proposed venue into a church.
More than 100 campaigners, who travelled en masse in coaches to the crucial meeting of Bromley's planning committee, cheered wildly as it delivered its verdict on the Kingsway International Christian Centre’s (KICC) application to convert the Gala bingo hall in Church Road to a place of worship.
The committee shared the concerns of the town hall planners who said the Crystal Palace Triangle would lose a valuable community resource if the building was allowed to change from a D2 community use.
They also turned down the application because of concerns about how the area would be able to deal with hundreds of the congregation travelling to the area, mainly by car.
Annabelle Sidney, chair of the Picture Palace campaign said she was “delighted” at the result. She called it a “very important decision for the future vitality of Crystal Palace” and “a credit to how hard the community has campaigned”.
Since June, thousands of residents have united for one of the biggest community campaigns in recent memory to fight for the bingo hall to be turned back into a cinema.
The campaign was launched after residents learned KICC had outbid City Screen, the independent cinema chain behind the Brixton Ritzy and Clapham Picture House, to buy the building.
Many residents felt a church would not bring the benefits to the area a cinema could.
At the meeting last night, campaigners and councillors spelt out their arguments - although planners emphasised the meeting should be based on the merits of KICC's application, not arguments for a cinema.
Ms Sidney described how losing the community use of the building would have a “catastrophic effect on an already fragile local economy” by losing an "anchor" to bring shoppers to the area.
Crystal Palace ward councillor Tom Papworth said a cinema represented “an enormous potential for economic development” that a church could not provide.
He added the objections to the church were not “anti-church campaign" but the “church proposals do not share a synergy with the local community”.
Councillor John Getgood, a councillor for Penge who sits on the planning committee, said: “Noise and parking would be intolerable” for residents caused by up to an estimated 75 per cent of the congregation arriving by car. He called KICC "a wandering tribe looking for a home" and said "this is the wrong place for it”.
KICC representative Bhavash Vashi, from Broadway Malyan, the church's planning agent, asked for the committee to either overturn officers' recommendations or defer the decision.
He argued: "Many of the objections appear not to be based on the church’s application but on whether a cinema should be provided.in this area.
“We do not believe that is a good enough reason to refuse this application.”
He said there was a lot to support the terms of community use in the application. He said the building would be used on a "mixed use basis" between the church and wider community, and the different uses proposed were "clearly proven to be complementary to shops and services in the town centre”.
KICC's application was for church services to be held on Sunday and Tuesday. Among "community uses" proposed are a children's book club, a youth development programme, a bookshop, an employment advice service, a soup kitchen for the homeless, hall hire, a craft club for the disabled, and a free film club.
Three members of the committee voted to defer the decision while three opted to refuse it. Planning chair Councillor Gordon Jenkins was given the deciding vote and moved to refuse the application.
However members of the committee expressed concerns that KICC had strong grounds for an appeal.
Councillor Peter Dean said the application could be seen as the church offering a great number of community facilities in place of a licensed building. He said that "might not be such a bad thing to people not from the area”.
Ms Sidney said cinema campaigners were naturally worried by the threat of an appeal but said if the Planning Inspectorate looked at "the tangled web of information" provided in KICC's "ever-changing" application, she was confident of the refusal being upheld.
She warned she would report KICC to the Charity Commission for breaking the terms of having charitable status if it “left the building to rot”.
Speaking after the meeting, a KICC spokesman said it was “too early" to comment on whether the church would appeal the decision or make a fresh application.
He said: "We will consider out options over the next few weeks.”