Questions over future of iconic Manchester venue that hosted a legendary band’s first ever gig

Questions have been raised about the future of a historical building in the center of Chorlton after it was sold to housing firm. The Picture House, which hosted the Bee Gees’ brothers first gig could have become a food hall, but was instead bought by Southway Housing Trust.

The old Picture House, on Manchester Road in Chorlton, was put up for sale in 2019 when it was previously owned by the Co-op Funeralcare. Despite a fundraising effort from the Chorlton Community Land Trust (CCLT) to redevelop the site, keeping the original 100 year-old property, the building has now been sold privately to Southway Housing Trust.

While it is currently unknown whether Southway Housing Trust will demolish the site, they are in discussions with CCLT to ensure there is community input in the planned development. A spokesperson for the trust explained that the plans are still in the very early stages and the future of the building is unknown, but providing houses on the site is expected.

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They said: “We do not have a fixed design solution for the site yet as we are still at the very early stages. Any future proposal will be developed in close consultation with the local community and planners to ensure a high-quality and sensitive development.

“We are a local community organization and our mission is to meet the housing needs of local people, which has only increased since the pandemic. We are keen to collaborate with the CCLT to deliver a community use space as part of the scheme.”

Despite the early stages of their planning, Southway Housing Trust have confirmed that the housing proposed for the site would be 100 per cent affordable. They have also expressed that some of the site would be for mixed-use development.

In addition, Karen Mitchell, Chief Executive of Southway Housing Trust, said: “As a not for profit, community based housing provider, we are pleased to have the opportunity to help meet an ever increasing and desperate need for affordable housing in Chorlton.

The Gaumont cinema building in Chorlton in 1958

“In addition to providing new affordable homes, we are committed to working with the Chorlton Community Land Trust on how we can best achieve our ambitions. Although we are still at a very early stage and do not yet have a fixed design, we will be working towards the provision of an energy efficient, sensitive and high-quality development which will enhance this landmark site in the center of Chorlton.”

Despite Southway Housing Trust’s commitment to working with the CCLT, the group remains unhappy about the sale and the potential loss of the building and the commercial space they had proposed. The community group has had a long standing interest in the site and in 2019 pressured the Co-op not to sell the site to Churchill Retirement Living who intended on demolishing the existing building and constructing retirement properties for the over 55s.

At this point, the CCLT began a fundraising campaign, ‘Stayin Alive’ to raise funds through the community to save the building and open a Mackie Mayor style food hall in the property, with space for shops, community groups and housing towards the back of the site. The group raised more than £420,000 and made an offer of £2.2m for the site in 2020. This was rejected in favor of Churchill Retirement Living’s higher offer. However, the Co-op then agreed to sell to the CCLT.

But, in 2021, the group submitted a formal offer to the Co-op with plans for the development and ultimately, the Co-op decided to sell to Southways. Simon Hooton, the chair of the CCLT explained why their offer changed over time and how the group felt let down by the Co-op following years of discussions.

He said: “We’ve been in discussions, negotiations, with the Co-op for two and half years or so and we put in an offer to them and given the passage of time, the basis of our offer has changed. Since we put the last iteration of our plan in, about six months or so ago, we have been trying to communicate with the Co-op and have not been able to get any feedback from them or get into any further dialogue from them.

“Unbeknownst to us, in parallel they went out to Southway and invited them to put in a proposal to purchase the site and then they have taken that proposal to their board who have agreed to it and then told us what’s happened. Co-op did not communicate that with us. Southway has not engaged with us during the process to understand the nature of our plans or our vision of the site either.

“We’re not trying to acquire the building in order to develop a community hall or big community space. We want the building to be retained because it can be a critical asset on our high street to increase the vibrancy and vitality of Chorlton high street because it’s right in the core of the district center and it’s a size that means it could host quite a wide range of commercial activities.”

Discussing the plans the CCLT had for the site, Simon told the Manchester Evening News how the group wanted a food hall similar to that of Altrincham market on the first floor with commercial space downstairs for shops, restaurants and maybe even a small cinema.

As well as this, the group wanted to create a space dedicated to cookery classes to aid the community.

“One of the other ideas that we really wanted to pursue was a food theme throughout the building as well,” he said. “So we think it would be really interesting to explore whether we could host training facilities for people wanting to go into the food industry.

“To provide cookery courses for local people, particularly young families learning how to manage budgets and eat healthily and we could maybe be a distribution point for food banks and the Chorlton bike delivery service.”

Despite feeling that they were not consulted before the sale of the old Picture House, the CCLT are now in discussions with Southway Housing Trust to try and bring about a vision for the community of Chorlton which includes both housing and commercial space. Following the confirmation of the sale of the old Picture House, the Chorlton Labor councilors released a joint statement from the three Chorlton ward councillors, Eve Holt, Mathew Benham and John Hacking, about their disappointment that the site was not purchased by CCLT.

It read: “We share the disappointment of many local residents that Chorlton CLT’s bid to purchase the Picture House site from the Co-op has been unsuccessful. The Stayin’ Alive campaign led by CCLT tapped into a huge local commitment to invest in a scheme that would help revitalize the district center of Chorlton, create new jobs and businesses, and realize the unique potential of a historic building in our ward.

“We are encouraged that Southway Housing Trust has agreed to work with the team behind the CCLT’s plans to build a low carbon, mixed use scheme with affordable homes. We are keen to see a joint plan be agreed that maximizes the potential of this site and supports economic and social vitality in Chorlton.

“We look forward to meeting those involved in the scheme and working with officers at Manchester city council to help deliver a better district center for local residents.”

The Co-op has refuted the claims that the CCLT were in the dark about other offers being made. They have also suggested that they were in contact with the group for a significant period of time and maintained contact throughout.

A spokesperson said: “It is over two years since we placed our Funeralcare building on the market and throughout that time we have remained true to our principles when looking to deliver a solution that provides value for our members, whilst maintaining a strong community benefit for the residents of Chorlton.

“In agreeing to a sale in principle to Southway Housing Trust, we have achieved our aim of securing a partner who we believe can execute the transaction and deliver on our member and community goals.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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