Café bar plan for 'unique' Burnley Empire Theatre

The faded but grand interior of the former Empire Theatre. Credit: Scrappy NW
The faded but grand interior of the former Empire Theatre. Credit: Scrappy NW
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A trendy café bar is set to be created in the former entrance area of a historic Burnley theatre, despite efforts to preserve it as a 'cultural heritage venue'.

Members of Burnley Borough Council's Development Control Committee went against their own planning officer's recommendation to reject a plan to convert the entrance foyer of the former Empire Theatre into a bar, instead giving it the green light at a recent meeting.

The interior. Credit: Scrappy NW

The interior. Credit: Scrappy NW

Applicant, well-known Burnley businessman Pino Musso, said that "common sense had prevailed" and added that his plans would breathe new life into the building.

He said: "I have faced many obstacles from Burnley Council concerning this planning application. I was delighted that the local councillors decided to ignore the officer's recommendations and pass the application. Common sense has prevailed.

"The Empire Theatre is falling apart and is an eyesore. A study also found it was not viable to be reopened in the future as a theatre. It could cost millions to bring it back to how it was. A new cafe bar will really brighten up the building and that side of town."

Mr Musso, who said he is also unhappy with conditions around opening times placed on the plan, was granted 10 years' ’temporary’ planning permission in February, has now been given permanent permission.

The landmark listed building in Lower St James’ Street has been the subject of intense speculation in recent years, leading to the formation of the Burnley Empire Theatre Trust, which had been investigating future possible uses for the theatre.

A viability study, produced in conjunction with Burnley Council, the Theatres Trust, Burnley and District Civic Trust, Burnley College and the University of Central Lancashire, found that while there was insufficient demand for the Empire to operate as a traditional theatre, there was good potential for use as a local music, artist and cultural venue, and as a youth training facility associated with its restoration.

The council's own planning report stated that: "A viable route was identified to reuse and reopen the Burnley Empire through creative thinking; new ideas with a fresh approach that included education, skill development and the community."

The Theatres Trust objected to the recent bar application on the basis that the proposal will result in the loss of the Empire’s foyer and main entrance which will compromise the future operation of the Empire as a community and cultural facility.

The foyer is the only front of house and public space provided in the theatre building and only space available for a box office, bar and audience waiting area, all of which are essential for any of the new uses identified and for generating income.

A spokesman for BETT said: “It was an extremely disappointing and frustrating outcome as the committee voted against the planning officer’s recommendation for the second time, dismissing advice to refuse permanent planning permission.

“We believe the decision does not reflect the council’s statutory duty to safeguard conservations areas such as the Burnley Empire. Last year a viability study reported a positive outcome and detailed a viable route for the reuse of the historic venue that would see a significant enhancement to the cultural asset, benefiting the local community and area.

“Although these plans add yet another bump on the road to reusing the Empire we are pleased to say that there was a workshop held this week with Burnley businesses to discuss ways of taking the restoration project further in a positive direction.”

Opened in 1894, the Empire is East Lancashire’s only purpose-built Edwardian theatre.

It was just one of few examples left of its kind across the UK, with architecture designed by Bertie Crewe, akin to the Shaftesbury located in the West End of London, designed and built by Crewe in the same year.

Converted into a cinema in 1938, and later into a bingo hall, it has been disused since 1995 and is listed on the Theatres at Risk Register which identifies theatres that could be brought back into use.