On 29th March 2023 Lidl announced the abandonment of their plans to refurbish the former Abbey Cinema “due to the significant delays that have been faced since first acquiring the site”. On 3rd May Lidl advertised the building for sale (via Mason Partners) with no price quoted: “Offers invited on a conditional or unconditional basis”.

The reaction to these moves on local social media was overwhelmingly hostile, with most of the anger being directed at “those who campaigned to get the building Listed”. Many people are predicting that the building will stand empty, slowly decaying, until ultimately it falls down or is pulled down.

The Wavertree Society’s long-expressed view is that we want to see a supermarket re-established on the site, either within the existing building or in a high-quality new building worthy of its place within the Wavertree Village Conservation Area. Our original criticism of Lidl’s plans was on design grounds. We felt that a multinational company such as Lidl could do better than the ‘rectangular shed with curved corner feature tacked on’ that was originally proposed. 

Contrary to popular belief – as we have said before – Listing of the former cinema building was not advocated by the Wavertree Society. However we know, from experience, how difficult it is to persuade Historic England to add a building to the List. When it was announced that the Abbey had been designated as a Listed Building, we were encouraged by Lidl’s reaction, which was to propose the restoration of many of its original features. We assumed that, while they had purchased the site with redevelopment in mind, they could see the ‘prestige’ value of refurbishing what SAVE Britain’s Heritage and Historic England had identified as a rare example of 1930s Art Deco/Moderne “super cinema” architecture.

In our formal response to Lidl’s refurbishment plans, we described them as “surprisingly ambitious” – and perhaps excessively so. We asked the Liverpool Planning Department to offer Lidl guidance as to which features of the building really need changing/restoring and which can be left as they are. Having been shown round the building, last summer, by Lidl’s property and public relations staff, we also pleaded with the Council to give the application high priority as the building’s condition was deteriorating and restoration costs were rising rapidly. Despite a personal email to the Head of Planning, reiterating these concerns, it would seem that this was not done. 

In giving reasons for their withdrawal from the project, Lidl say: “It is hoped that another buyer would be able to transform it in a way that benefits the local community”.

However, we do not believe that there is any serious prospect of this happening. The future of the site is very much in Lidl’s hands. They could still do one of two things: either apply for the building to be De-Listed, or submit a Listed Building Consent application to demolish it (either in whole or part) to make way for a newbuild scheme. Neither of these courses of action will be easy, but the second option at least offers the prospect of a positive outcome, and the opportunity for everyone – whether for or against the proposal – to express their views. Historic England state that ‘Removing a Building from the List’ can be applied for (either by the owner or a third party) on the grounds that the building “no longer holds special architectural or historic interest”. The applicant for De-Listing will need to demonstrate that “new evidence is available” or there has been a “material change in circumstances”. Historic England will then draft a consultation report, which will be open to comments from the owner, the applicant and the local planning authority. 

Alternatively, Listed Building Consent for demolition might be applied for as part of an application for a new development on the site. Paragraph 201 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) 2021 sets out the only circumstances in which the government would support this course of action: EITHER it is “necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh the harm or loss”, OR all of the following apply:”

(a) the nature of the heritage asset prevents all reasonable uses of the site; and

(b) no viable use of the heritage asset itself can be found in the medium term through appropriate marketing that will enable its conservation; and

(c) conservation by grant-funding or some form of not for profit, charitable or public ownership is demonstrably not possible; and

(d) the harm or loss is outweighed by the benefit of bringing the site back into use.”

Paragraph 204 of the NPPF states that: “Local planning authorities should not permit the loss of the whole or part of a heritage asset without taking all reasonable steps to ensure that the new development will proceed after the loss has occurred”.

As far as we are aware, the public consultation exercise which was carried out by Lidl, back in early 2021, showed that there was considerable local support for a Lidl supermarket on this site. In our view the re-establishment of a supermarket could be described as a “substantial public benefit”. The way is therefore open to Lidl to submit a revised planning application for a fine example of 21st century architecture, tailored to its location opposite the 18th century Lock-up and the 19th century Picton Clock Tower, and perhaps incorporating features to act as reminders of the ‘lost’ 20th century cinema. The most obvious example would be a glazed corner turret or drum feature to mimic the original neon-lit Abbey tower.

We hope that Lidl, Liverpool City Council and Historic England will all give these ideas some consideration. We have liaised with Lidl ever since they acquired the building, and we sympathise with their predicament. We continue to believe that Wavertree needs a supermarket, designed to serve the local community and to enhance the character of the Wavertree Village Conservation Area.

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