Earl and Duchess in late bid to save Dudley Hippodrome from demolition

Two aristocrats have lodged objections to plans to demolish an historic Black Country theatre – hours before planners are due to make their decision.

The former Dudley Hippodrome building
The former Dudley Hippodrome building

The Duchess of Beaufort and the Earl of Dudley – whose ancestor donated the land on which the Hippodrome was built – have both lodged strong objections to the planned demolition of the former Dudley Hippodrome theatre to make way for a university building.

The proposals will go before Dudley Council’s development control committee tonight, with planning officer Richard Stevenson recommending the plans should be given the go-ahead. However, any approval will be subject to ratification from cabinet minister Michael Gove, who will have the power to ‘call in’ the scheme for review.

The plans also include the demolition of the neighbouring former skating rink, which has more recently been used as a martial arts centre, Castle Hill banqueting suite and the former JB’s nightclub.

The council has secured £25 million government funding to build the new education centre.

Campaigners wanting to save the Dudley Hippodrome drew up plans for how it could look if it were refurbished
Duchess of Beaufort

David Ward, the 5th Earl of Dudley, and his cousin, Tracy Worcester, Duchess of Beaufort, have both written to Mr Stevenson voicing strong opposition to the proposals. The Earl’s half-brother, the film-maker Leander Ward, has also lodged an objection.

The Earl, writing from Spain, said the proposed University of Worcester building was of ‘no architectural merit’ and accused Dudley Council of failing to follow accepted protocol.

The Duchess, who is the grand-daughter of the 3rd Earl of Dudley, said it would be folly to demolish the two buildings while the town was bidding for city status.

She said there were other sites in the town where the college could be built.

The Duchess, who lives in Badminton, Gloucestershire, said both the Hippodrome and the former skating rink had fascinating and important histories.

“I am astounded that these can be thrown away so easily by your council and planners,” she said.

“Both buildings, as far as I can see, hold special places in the hearts of Dudley people. I cannot see how the demolition of the historical theatre would enhance the setting of the other listed buildings on Castle Hill.

“It appears to me that this new building is a very poor replacement with no discernible Art Deco features.”

The Earl said a restrictive covenant laid down by the Kennedy family, which ran the theatre for 20 years after it opened in 1938, stated that the land could only be used for theatre, retail or housing, and said that this should be upheld.

Mr Stevenson's report said that the demolition of the theatre would improve views of Dudley Zoo and Castle, which were obstructed by the scale of the theatre.

The auditorium of the former Dudley Hippodrome
The interior of the Dudley Hippodrome pictured in 1957

But the Earl disputed this. He said: "As far as I can see, the listed elements of Dudley Zoo would be no more visible to the general public if Dudley Hippodrome and the adjoining building were demolished.

“As far as I can see, the listed elements of Dudley Zoo would be no more visible to the general public if Dudley Hippodrome and the adjoining building were demolished,” said the Earl.

“The listed Odeon Cinema building and Station Hotel, both of the same era as the theatre building, sit well together being of Art Deco design.

The Earl said he believed that the building could once more become a viable theatre if it was refurbished, and called on the council to lend its support.

"Many formerly disused theatre buildings around the country have been and are being successfully reopened with their council's support and this option should be, at the very least, have been considered before this planning application as submitted.

“A refurbished Dudley Hippodrome would enhance the character of the conservation area. Castle Hill has always been the entertainment quarter of Dudley town and it needs a theatre venue.”

The Earl said he was unimpressed by the design of the proposed university building, which would be used to train nurses and health-care workers.

He said: “I have seen the images of the proposed educational facility. I can see no architectural merit in this building and cannot see how it could enhance the setting of Dudley Castle and other listed buildings.”

He dismissed claims that the new building had been designed to reflect the Hippodrome’s Art Deco features.

“I am unable to identify any Art Deco features or modern-day versions of them,” said the Earl. “The proposed new building does not come close to replacing the iconic Dudley Hippodrome building.”

The Earl said national planning guidelines encouraged the retention of heritage and theatre buildings.

"It also requires any planning to take the environment into consideration," he said.

"I have been made aware of the huge environmental impact the demolition of the two heritage buildings will have and at a time where there is a climate emergency, this is unforgivable.

"At the very least the theatre building could be repurposed. It is structurally sound, and it could have many different purposes."

Both the Earl and the Duchess voiced concerns that the council would be deciding on a planning application for a building it owned.

"I hope the planning application to demolish Dudley Hippodrome and the adjacent building is turned down, and that the theatre building is brought back to life for the benefit of the townspeople and for future generations," the Earl added.

Mr Ward, who is the youngest son of the late 4th Earl of Dudley, William 'Billy' Ward, also called for the building to be retained as a theatre.

"The theatre building is an iconic part of Dudley’s rich history and heritage," he said.

"It is of huge significance historically due to the number and quality of world class performers who have played there.

"My direct ancestors gifted this land to the people of Dudley, and I am hugely proud of my family’s heritage. As a film director myself with a particular interest in architecture and the arts, I would support a newly renovated Hippodrome that can be enjoyed by the community of Dudley."

In his objection, Mr Ward said the venue was of "huge significance" and is the one and only theatre designed by renowned local architect Archibald Hurley Robinson, famous for his cinema designs.

The meeting will be held at Dudley Town Hall, starting at 6pm.

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