Proposals for a temporary theatre in the shape of a giant purple cow on the Hungerford Car Park next to Jubilee Gardens narrowly received the go-ahead from Lambeth councillors this week.
As we reported in March, Underbelly is bringing its Udderbelly venue (seen at the Edinburgh fringe over the past three summers) to the Hungerford Car Park on the South Bank for seven weeks starting this month.
Udderbelly's giant upside-down purple cow was approved by the chairman's casting vote at Lambeth's planning applications committee on Tuesday after one councillor voted in favour, one voted against and two abstained.
The Hungerford Car Park has long been a subject of local controversy. It is currently designated as Metropolitan Open Land (MOL) and local campaigners – including the Friends of Jubilee Gardens and Waterloo Community Development Group – would like to see the green area of Jubilee Gardens extended right up to the railway viaduct.
The car park has been the subject of previous applications for temporary uses including the failed South Bank Beach proposal.
Michael Ball of Waterloo Community Development Group argued that the use of the site for an entertainment venue is contrary to Lambeth's own policy.
"This isn't an academic point," he told the committee. "The site was designated as MOL because we have a serious deficiency of open space and it's getting worse as Waterloo is crammed with new development."
"Lambeth's policy for 30 years plus has been to try and get this site as an extension of the park. We haven't got a single extra square inch as a result of that policy because the Southbank Centre says that they need this site for their operations."
Mr Ball argued that the Southbank Centre should be required to turn over the site to public use once the Udderbelly venue leaves.
Donald Weighton of the Friends of Jubilee Gardens pointed out that with a theatre capacity of 400 and a bar capacity of 700, the application is "primarily for a bar and only secondly for a show".
He warned that the application "sets a nasty principle for losing chunks of parks" and "must not be used by the applicant in the future to promote permanent construction on the site."
Southbank Centre's Mike McCart told the committee that Udderbelly is aimed at a family and 18-35 audience with shows at 7pm and 9pm.
"During the day Udderbelly will be used by workshops for young people to create work, training sessions and free open rehearsals," he added, highlighting Southbank Centre's commitment to young people in Lambeth and Southwark.
"20 local young people recruited by SE1 United will have the opportunity to gain skills and be involved in running every aspect of Udderbelly as a venue."
Mr McCart said that Michael Ball's proposal to turn the Udderbelly pasture over to public use after the cow leaves SE1 for Edinburgh was "an interesting one but not one that we could commit to".
"The BFI are at this stage waiting for Government approval in terms of the funding contribution.
"So it would not be possible to make any commitment to a future use after this without looking at it in that context."
Later he added: "It's only through cultural development that the park will be extended."
The committee also heard from Bishop's ward councillor Diana Braithwaite who raised a number of concerns about the application including noise, rubbish and the principle of development on the land.
Several members of the planning applications committee expressed misgivings about the late timing of the application for the venue which opens on 27 May.
"This is a very sensitive site and you're clearly aware of that," said Cllr Brian Palmer. "To come to this committee and say 'well, we're putting it up next week' is frankly saying to this committee 'you're neither here nor there and we're going to do what we want'."
Cllr Diana Morris also complained that Southbank Centre was holding "a gun to our heads" by submitting a planning application so late.
Cllr Palmer was concerned that the venue will carry prominent sponsorship by Grolsch. "Given that a large part of this exercise is supposed to be geared to children, I really don't think it's appropriate ... You're thrusting in their faces this alcoholic drinking culture."
Underbelly director Charlie Wood told the committee that Udderbelly will provide "affordable family entertainment at a time when people are not going abroad".
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