To Plymouth City Council,
We wish to register our opposition to the proposed conversion of 38 Looe Street, the former Plymouth Arts Centre, from a viable community facing commercial property into a private profit-making HMO/Airbnb. We ask that 38 Looe Street be allowed a future that reflects its past as a mixed-use community-facing commercial and residential space.
The building was gifted to the people of Plymouth by Nancy Astor. Initially, she gave it as a home for the clubs and pursuits of the United Services. In 1947 it became one of the country’s first regional public Arts Centres following the creation of the Arts Council after World War II. Supported by Lady Astor – who donated her own piano to the music group and gave lectures on “Authors I have known” to the literature society – the Arts Centre became a hub of the city’s creative life. Over the years it hosted ballet companies, musical ensembles, puppet theatres. It enabled peer-to-peer education and skills teaching. Film buffs came to see work ignored by mainstream cinemas. Actors put on cutting-edge new plays. The work of Picasso was shown in the 1950s, and the next month, landscapes by local artists were hung. Derek Jarman exhibited there; artists from Marina Abramovic to Beryl Cook showed their work (her first exhibition in 1975, and her 80th birthday retrospective in 2006). The Arts Centre helped to launch and sustain careers, bringing a wealth of creativity to the old buildings on the Barbican. One of the last projects to take place there was Sara Bowler’s “Looe Street Detectives”. Local people joined the artist to uncover the area’s history. And of course there was the famous pioneering vegetarian restaurant.
The Arts Centre weathered 70 years before its demise in 2018. It was sold for relatively little and separated by developers into its component parts. 38 Looe Street became home to Jar, a zero-waste shop that continued the building’s legacy of sustainable pioneering work. Jar’s owners made continued efforts to buy the property but, now under the ownership of the third developer in three years, the building faces a hostile planning application. The proposals are to convert the building into an 11-bed HMO (house of multiple occupancy) for use as an Airbnb-style unregulated short-let business of no benefit to the local community.
38 Looe Street need not be an arts centre to benefit the local neighbourhood and the wider Plymouth community, but it should not suffer such a drastic and unsustainable change of use and complete remodelling and reorientation either. It has shown its suitability for commercial use and its potential for mixed residential and commercial use, as well as its history of community use. Practical proposals have been made for its purchase and use as a community-facing business premises that would honour the building, its past, and the people around it, and potentially offer more than short-term casual accommodation. It is a historic building that has never been without a front-facing use. It is a site of employment and skills development. It is an anchor in the neighbourhood.
Plymouth professes to value its history and its community. The Astors – instrumental in protecting the city’s historic environment – gave this corner of the Barbican to the people of Plymouth to honour that community, nourish it, and build it. This planning proposal is a travesty of that trust and honour. It disrespects the immense work put in by the people of Plymouth in maintaining the networks and communities of interest that sustain the city. It shows no consideration for the current residents and businesses, and no thought for the past of the building and its area, nor for that gift to the people of Plymouth and the many gifts that the Arts Centre subsequently bestowed. It is not a future.
We ask the Council to see the potential for 38 Looe Street to be a thriving, useful space again, and in order that that might happen, to reject the current planning proposal.