Paignton: A picture of culture-led regeneration

Key Learning

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an old fashioned reel of celluloid film rests on an old cinema projector against a backdrop of a stained glass window

Introduction: About the CDF Network Study Visit Programme

If we are to share learning and best practice from any place-based project or intervention, it’s important that we first understand the context in which it operates. How does the funded project sit within the town or city? How does it relate to wider town planning, the everyday flow of people and traffic, social cohesion, pride in place or the history, heritage and character of that town?

As part of the CDF Network programme, each of the seven second round CDF projects have the opportunity to host and visit each other’s sites in order to help provide insight into such questions. This opportunity to see each project in its wider local context helps develop best practice in how we think of place-based projects and cultural placemaking in our own towns and cities.

Learning Outcomes

The following summary report from the first of these visits, hosted by Torbay Culture, will provide valuable insights relevant to other place-based projects, with particular focus on:

  • Place distinctiveness: Placemaking or Place Shaping?
  • Culture and Heritage-led regeneration
  • Cultural infrastructure and town planning
  • Activating spaces
  • Community engagement and cohesion

About the project

Following an investment of almost £3m through the Cultural Development Fund (CDF), the Paignton Picture House – one of Europe’s oldest purpose-built cinemas – is now being restored and reopened, backed by a culture-led community engagement programme. Sitting at the heart of Torbay Council’s plans to revitalise Paignton and boost pride in place, this grade II* listed building will reconnect the surrounding public realm and town centre, acting as a test case to demonstrate how heritage buildings can be returned to the community and brought back into public use. Additional funding for the project has been secured through the Architectural Heritage Fund and for connecting with the wider public realm and with Paignton town centre through the Future High Streets Fund.

Place Partnership

include the Local Authority, a strategic cultural lead organisation, local community groups, organisations or foundations, a venue or hub, an arts organisation to deliver the community engagement and cultural programme and an education and/or skills provider. Key partners in the Torbay CDF project were represented during the site visit, including:

Additional partners include The International Agatha Christie Festival, skills development partners, South Devon College and lead architects AOC.

The Challenge

relevant to Paignton. Many of these will be familiar to other towns across the country, particularly coastal towns or those with a historical emphasis on the visitor economy. These include:

  • low expectations and aspirations affecting engagement, participation and quality
  • perceived imbalances between provision for residents and visitors
  • missed opportunities to share, and learn from, experience
  • working approaches such as ‘working round “their” way’, ‘start stop’ and ‘in out’ at times – resulting in isolated programming, one-off or toured in cultural activities offering a great experience in themselves, but not realising all their potential
  • Need to make better local links, nurture home grown talent, build capacity and provide for an ongoing legacy of development

Torbay Council’s Director of Pride in Place, Alan Denby, set out some of the wider strategic challenges for the area, which Torbay’s CDF project will also help to address. Alan highlighted some of the wider demographic challenges, with an ageing population contributing to low economic activity and GVA per head of population, “although the GVA figures per working employee compare more favourably”. Compounding this is the fact that the area has some very good schools, but skills and education levels are falling. “Good schools are exporting talent”, says Alan. “How can we retain talent and attract it as well?”.

Context: Place Distinctiveness

Speakers from Torbay Council set out the wider context that underpins and informs the need and aims of Torbay’s CDF project. Alan Denby explained that “Torbay has historically struggled to articulate where it sees itself in the region – both in Devon generally but also in relation to our neighbours in Plymouth and Exeter. Part of this is about getting away from the ‘bucket and spade’ perceptions – particularly in Paignton. How do you make it appeal more for under 30s/40s to get away for the weekend?”.

Jim Blackwell – Service Manager, Development Management (planning), set this in the wider context of Place Distinctiveness, addressing questions around placemaking -vs- place-shaping, definitions of ‘place’ and a community’s sense of place. This was neatly summarised by Jim through the words of Jeff Kelley:

“a site represents the constituent properties of a place – its mass, space, light, duration, location and material processes … a place represents the practical, vernacular, psychological, social, cultural, cerebral, ethnic, economic, political and historical dimensions of a site. Sites are like frameworks. Places are what fill them out and make them work”.

Jeff Kelley: Keynote address, Public Art – The New Agenda, 1993

What this means for Jim and Torbay Council is that before we begin to even think about any planning, policy or place-shaping decisions, we first need to understand and respond to local needs and preferences. Or, as Jim puts it, “it’s important that things are not ‘done to’ a place”.

Clearly culture has a vital role to play in all this. It is testament to how deeply embedded this is across Torbay Council – as it as across all the CDF Network partners – that this message was driven home by Jim Blackwell, its senior planning officer, later in his presentation:

“Ultimately, art, cultural and heritage projects are most effective when they are part of a larger, holistic, multidisciplinary approach”, said Jim. “In this way, arts/artists can contribute to the vitality of place. It will rely on:

  • strong relationships;
  • effective policy and guidance;
  • artists as members of design teams;
  • engaging creatively;
  • continuing to produce permanent or temporary public art and events. A bold approach“.
exterior of Paignton Picture House - a grand heritage stone building viewed from the ground looking up at a bank of large windows

Culture and Heritage-led Regeneration

Alan Denby is clear that he sees the Paignton Picture House re-development as “a 3D manifestation of our pride in place”, which delivers on Torbay Council’s wider agenda for culture and heritage. “There aren’t many historic buildings in public ownership across the bay,”, says Alan, “so this is a first test case to show how heritage buildings can be returned and repositioned for public community use”.

Geoff Shearcroft, representing lead architects AOC, led a tour of the building shortly before the phase one enabling works commenced. Geoff noted the importance of striking the right balance between celebrating the historical significance of the Paignton Picture House as one of the oldest surviving purpose-built cinemas and how it might serve a wider purpose for the community;

“The challenge is how it can be more than a cinema and become a community space – including opening up of the second floor”.

Geoff Shearcroft, AOC Architecture

Working with heritage buildings brings its own challenges. As AOC began work on the project, one of these was the gap between initial vision set out in early feasibility studies to secure funding and the harsh realities and practical considerations uncovered during more detailed structural surveys. “Increasingly, clients don’t want to pay out for surveys at the outset, which means significant unexpected costs are only uncovered later in the project”, says Geoff. “Feasibility studies without structural surveys runs the risk of not truly assessing feasibility at all”.

Inevitably this requires some re-thinking, lots of creative problem-solving and flexibility from all partners – including the funders. It may also require bringing in additional funding. Nowhere is this more pronounced than during the planning consent application phase, where a balance must be struck between proposed building use, design and meeting strict planning regulations.

Image of architect, Geoff Shearcroft, standing in silhouette against a large, round heritage window at the entrance to Paignton Picture House
Geoff Shearcroft, AOC Architecture, stands inside the impressive entrance of the Paignton Picture House

Heritage buildings have particular challenges here with regards to Listed Building Consent and sustainability requirements, although Geoff notes a recent shift and a more pragmatic approach in this balance:

“For most of my adult career heritage has trumped sustainability”, says Geoff, “Now that conversation has changed radically”.

Geoff credits much of this to a very forward-thinking approach from Historic England, which supports and promotes the role of heritage and the built historic environment in sustainable growth.

Community Engagement: Activating Spaces

Reportedly Agatha Christie’s favourite cinema, the partnership with the International Agatha Christie Festival offers plenty of opportunities to host future public events. In the meantime, revenue funding secured as part of the CDF project helps reconnect the local community with the building and start the conversation about other potential uses beyond film screenings.

Building on the success of a strategic partnership developed through its earlier Great Place Scheme project, Torbay Culture commissioned Filament as its cultural programme delivery partner. Filament’s co-director, Nat Palin, talked of the importance of continuing the ethos of the organisation developed through its work on the Great Place Scheme:

“We recognised the need for some mechanism that can sit between strategic building blocks and the often hand-to-mouth ecologies of artists and creatives”, says Nat. “It’s about working in place and what has evolved organically from that place… what ‘wants to be there’. As co-ordinators of the revenue programme, we want to put the lightest possible touch on this, recognising the elements of the system that are already there and building from this”.

This has involved a commissioning process that “puts as much away out of of Filament as possible”.

The programme includes activities and events alongside skills development, pathways into work and leadership development and will involve a partnership and commissions with local culture and heritage organisations, including:

Launched in 2023, the resulting programme – Wide Open – aims to grow the local cultural landscape and build connections between Paignton’s local heritage, culture, and the people who live there.

One of the founding principles of developing the revenue programme is the idea of the Picture House as a physical embodiment of pride in place and as a “beacon of hope and belonging” for Paignton, with Filament’s co-director, Nat Palin, noting that “the very act of transforming the building is a beacon of hope in itself”.

Direct engagement and involvement with the local community is central to the philosophy of the programme and the work of Filament. Nat’s co-director, Clare Parker, notes:

“If we just end up with same cultural leaders in the room we’re never going to get anywhere. We worked really hard in bringing in residents, community groups, arts organisations and others all together. We recognised a need to disrupt groups and make sure they don’t default back into the usual faces. Always ask yourself who’s not in the room“.

Clare Parker, Co-Director, Filament

Next Steps

  • Phase One of enabling works began at Paignton Picture House on Monday 13 November
  • After a competitive tendering process, Classic Builders have been appointed to undertake this first phase, with the project managed by AOC Architecture
  • The project team will be moving into a temporary home venue, The Projection Room, across the road from the Picture House in early 2024, with plans for a volunteer call-out
  • While the majority of funds are in place, Paignton Picture House Trust is continuing to fund-raise to complete the restoration work
  • A number of events have already taken place as part of the Wide Open programme
  • Torbay’s CDF project will continue until Spring 2025. The project and programme will be evaluated at national level as part of the wider CDF programme by Steer Economic Development.

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