How to actually save the Picture House

The big news in Edinburgh music this week was the announcement that MAMA are to sell The Picture House on Lothian Road to JD Wetherpoon, for conversion (presumably) into a pub.

As outlined in the Evening News article above, the internet sprung immediately into action. There’s a petition going around (of course) that, at time of writing, has just shy of ten thousand signatures, and a twitter hashtag (of course) at #savethepicturehouse, which seems pretty long for a medium that operates in 140 character bursts.

Please excuse the withering tone. I don’t really want to rain on any parades here. Indeed, for a city that can often be so musically apathetic (how many shows have you been to at Electric Circus or Sneaky Pete’s or the Liquid Room that has been painfully undersold?) it’s quite heart warming to see so many rallying to save a venue. The thing is, and I hate to say this, but a petition aimed at JD Wetherspoon won’t make an iota of difference. They’re a company that operates pubs and hotels; they’re not a company that invests into other businesses. If they’ve bought the Picture House, their only intention towards it will be to turn it into a pub.

(I should point out I’ve got a fair bit of affection for Wetherspoon. Over the years they’ve put a lot of really great buildings back into productive use, and I like their intention of keeping things fairly simple and cheap in face of a sector seemingly overrun with awful gastropubs full of awful people.)

Without getting into too much political theory, the development of cities these days is based around neoliberal market economics. Put in really simple terms, the use of a piece of land will generally be the use that brings in the most money. Obviously if you’re onboard that particular ideological train you’ll find that all dandy, but for the rest of us this might be an end use that is completely at odds with what we think a place “needs”.

Obviously the concept of “need” is pretty nebulous, open to interpretation and malleable to your political beliefs. This is where the Planning system (in theory) comes in. It’s meant to act like an overlord, looking down, trying to work out what a place “needs” and judging the market’s proposals based on that. If you’re trying to assess the “need” of either a building or a building’s use, you should probably look at (a) what it provides to the wider community, and (b) what alternatives there are that duplicate that use.

What the Picture House provides seems fairly obvious; a centrally-located music venue that can (and does) bring a substantially number of larger national and international touring acts to Edinburgh. It also operates a number of clubnights, a key part of the “night time economy” that politicians seem to alternate between loving and hating.

The Picture House, for all the faults you can find with it (I could pick on some, but that isn’t the point here), doesn’t have any real local substitutes. The Corn Exchange is probably closest in character, but sits in a residential area about three miles from the city centre and has limited public transport access as a result. The Usher Hall serves more as a general arts venue and isn’t really suitable for a lot of the acts that would play the Picture House. Can you imagine seeing a scrappy rock band or some bass-heavy hip hop in there? The Liquid Room and the Queen’s Hall are both centrally located but considerably smaller, and won’t be able to attract the acts of the same commercial clout as The Picture House currently does. If there are vacant buildings of a suitable size that could open up to fill the void, they’re all escaping me right now.

Looking at the wider picture, live music in Edinburgh struggles as it is. We’re often relegated to tours of secondary markets by British acts, whilst international acts tend to ignore us altogether in favour of that city to the west. The loss of the Picture House, coupled with a dearth of existing or potential replacements, would be damaging to the local musical economy. A cynical person would find it easy to poke fun at petition-starter Callum’s dream of playing there himself, but it’s a completely fair aspiration and I imagine similar dreams are how a number of bands you like got started.

If you’re just skim-reading this (I probably wouldn’t blame you), here’s the important part. The Evening News article linked at the top makes mention that they’ll likely need to put in a planning application before they can re-open the building as a pub. This is good news, because planning applications are open to public comment.

Now, commenting on a planning application that you disagree with it isn’t a guarantee that it’ll be rejected – even if the ten thousand who’ve signed the petition all do it. But application comments from the public are considered as “material considerations”; things that are examined by the elected officials who make the final call.

I’ve had a look at the Edinburgh planning application database, and currently there are no applications lodged for the Picture House’s address at 31 Lothian Road. It’s difficult to say with the Christmas period bearing down on us, but I imagine, as the building changes hands on January 6th, it’ll appear there fairly soon.

So, if you’re wanting to keep the Picture House open as a live music venue, here’s what you need to do.

– Keep an eye on the Planning website for when the application goes up.
– and more importantly, OBJECT TO IT when it does.

If you’re going to post an objection, you need to ensure your objection is what it deemed “reasonable“. Essentially, this means you need to say why the building should retain its current use. You need to say why the venue is important to the city. You need to say that the current use as a music venue is more important than another pub. Keep it positive – slating JD Wetherspoon as a company will only hurt whatever you’re saying.

It may seem difficult right now to stop this, but it’s not without hope. It’ll just require a bit more than signing your name on an online petition. So, Edinburgh, I ask you; how badly do you want this venue to stay?

But, hey, even if this goes ahead and by next summer we’re all sat in The Picture House eating our £5 beer-and-burger offer, at least we’ll still have the memories.


9 responses to “How to actually save the Picture House

  1. interesting – if the council manage to remain impartial, and avoid any external ‘pressures’, then the pub development could be stopped. But what would that give us? I’m concerned that the building would therefore lie empty… but MAMA have sold it, so Wetherspoons would… be forced to retain the building as it is? Maybe that fantasy scenario where they “listen” to the petitioners could actually happen? But bearing in mind they have no experience in music, I can’t imagine what they could do – apart from letting the current employees continue to work in conjunction with the usual promoters to keep the place going ‘as is’ and just cream off the profits?
    Unfortunately, it’s my last sentence there that probably sums up the problem…

  2. It’s a difficult one, and something I (purposely) avoided touching on. I presume Wetherspoons must be pretty confident than any planning application would go through – perhaps expecting it’ll just be delegated to the Head of Planning rather than going through an elected official.

    (For those that don’t know the FASCINATING ins and outs of the planning system – in theory, the elected officials have the final say on all planning applications. In practice, a lot of the less important/interesting/controversial applications are delegated to the Head of Planning to make a decision on.)

    According to the Edinburgh guidelines (available here, for some light bedtime reading, an application cannot be approved by a delegated officer if it receives six material complaints. Six!

    I guess part of the issue is that MAMA are one of the few major national venue owners – the only one I can think of otherwise is the AMG, who own the various Academy-branded venues. But even if they weren’t interested, I struggle to think that one of the Scottish venue management or promotion companies (G1 or PCL or similar) wouldn’t be interested in taking it on.

  3. “If there are vacant buildings of a suitable size that could open up to fill the void, they’re all escaping me right now.” The old ODEON cinema on Clerk Street, that’s been shut down / “in development” for years now. That’d make a perfect music venue would it not?

  4. Well, I’d have though it would be profitable but MAMA are selling it, why I’m not sure. They must have a good reason, so I guess the same might apply for any other promoter wanting to take it on as a music venue. Hopefully not!

    • It doesn’t mean that it isn’t profitable as a music venue, just that it’s more profitable as a site to Wetherspoons. There are a myriad of reasons as to why MAMA might’ve wanted to dispose of it.

  5. Are we sure that they need to apply for change of use? The building has been so many things over the years, it may already have the required planning permissions for food, booze and puggies!

    • The change of use surprised me as well. Admittedly, all I’m really going on for that is the mention in the Evening News article. Presume it’s some kind of difference between a paid-entry nightclub and a regular pub?

  6. Bainbridge, planning permission would be needed as the interior of the place needs changes – as it stands, the layout is not fit for bein ga a pub.

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