Waltham Forest’s historic EMD Cinema closed in 2003 when it was purchased by the controversial Universal Church of the Kingdom of God (UCKG), a wealthy international organisation with plans to convert the venue for religious use. The group bought the site despite having already been refused planning permission for their scheme and widespread public opposition.
Following a massive local campaign led by the McGuffin Film Society, the government held a Public Inquiry in the summer of 2003 which ruled that the building remained commercially viable as a cinema and should not be converted into a church. Despite receiving at least 12 serious offers from potential buyers, UCKG refused to sell the building and instead left it empty and decaying.
At the beginning of 2009 UCKG unveiled a new scheme to convert the iconic Walthamstow venue into a church. The new proposals would see the vast majority of the site used exclusively as a church with some space in the former Upstairs Circle area of Cinema 1 adapted to create a small venue for “community hire at commercial rates”.
In March 2009 more than 400 residents gathered to discuss the new proposals at a public meeting organised by the McGuffin Film Society. 100% of those in attendance voted in favour of reviving the EMD as a cinema.
The following month UCKG held an exhibition of their plans and the McGuffin Film Society responded by organising a huge demonstration outside the EMD Cinema attended by over 600 local residents and attracting coverage from television, radio and the international press.
Messages of support were also received from a number of celebrities (see above). Shortly afterwards, several high profile cinema operators went on the record to confirm their ongoing interest in reviving the EMD (read their statements here). UCKG’s new planning application was eventually published in August 2009 and a Day of Action was organised by the McGuffin Film Society to enable residents to register their objections to the scheme. More than 1000 local people sent written objections to the council for consideration as part of the planning process.
With the EMD issue and UCKG’s plans mired in huge controversy, Waltham Forest Council began 2010 by commissioning a fully independent review to finally provide a balanced overview of the situation and identify viable solutions for the cinema.
Regeneration specialists Locum Consultants were appointed to undertake a thorough investigation of the case and assess all options for the venue’s future. With the review process expected to last several months, it became clear that no decision on the EMD would be reached before the 2010 parliamentary and council elections.
The McGuffin Film Society therefore organised a huge election hustings meeting, inviting all the area’s parliamentary and council candidates to debate the future of the EMD Cinema in public. Under the banner ‘Vote Cinema’, the lively meeting was held in the main hall of Walthamstow School for Girls and attended by more than 500 local residents – a turnout far outnumbering any other election event in the borough.
In April senior personnel from Locum Consultants inspected the EMD building and held meetings with key council officers. Representatives from UCKG and the McGuffin Film Society were summoned to the Town Hall for lengthy discussions with the consultants. Waltham Forest Council confirmed that no decision on UCKG’s planning application would be made until the outcome of the Locum investigation had been published.
In August the Locum Consultants report was finally released and would prove to be a critical development in the campaign. The report firmly endorsed many of the arguments articulated in meetings with the McGuffin Film Society, concluding that the EMD was “probably the single most valuable asset Walthamstow has” while its revival would be “perhaps the only venture that could seriously put Walthamstow on the map as an evening destination”. The Locum report went on to recommend that the best option for the EMD would be the formation of an independent charitable Trust to secure and administer its long-term future. The full Locum report can be read here. The report’s recommendations led directly to the formation of Waltham Forest Cinema Trust, a not-for-profit organisation which hopes to acquire the EMD building for cultural use if an agreement can be reached (full details below).
On Wednesday 18 May 2011 Waltham Forest Council’s planning committee met to reach a verdict on UCKG’s proposals. Amidst unprecedented scenes, more than 700 people attended the planning committee meeting at Walthamstow Assembly Hall to hear the debate and witness the vote – with at least a further 200 people unable to gain access to the building due to overcrowding.
Representatives from the McGuffin Film Society and Waltham Forest Cinema Trust spoke alongside Stella Creasy MP and individual local councillors and residents in support of the EMD’s revival while the church leaders delivered an angry defence of their scheme.
At the end of the meeting, the planning committee voted to reject UCKG’s proposals. The decision was unanimous and supported by all political parties.
Following the meeting Council leader Chris Robbins said “There’s a lot of support for retaining the building as a cultural venue and I am sure many residents will be delighted with the decision. Should UCKG decide to appeal we will, of course, defend our decision”.
Stella Creasy MP said “UCKG’s proposal to turn the EMD Cinema into a church has now been rejected twice, demonstrating the clear and settled will of the residents of Walthamstow that they wish to see this building restored as a cinema”.
As the year closed and the deadline for any appeal or legal intervention was about to expire, UCKG delivered last-minute documents to the government’s Planning Inspectorate outlining their intention to challenge the council’s verdict at a full Public Inquiry.
2012 began with confirmation that the government would hear UCKG’s appeal and a Public Inquiry was scheduled for the early spring. The McGuffin Film Society immediately began promoting details of the appeal process and over 1000 written objections were submitted in time for the 24 February deadline.
During preparatory meetings for the Inquiry, UCKG unveiled a hastily revised plan for the EMD which now involved operating the venue as a hybrid church-cinema. The government inspectors judged this was effectively an entirely new proposal and the Inquiry was promptly postponed. UCKG were granted a further period of time to formalise their new proposal as yet another planning application and this was delivered to Waltham Forest Council in June.
Public anger and frustration at UCKG’s tactics meant that a further 1000 planning objections were quickly amassed. A second planning committee meeting at Walthamstow Assembly Hall was set for September 4 which again saw hundreds of residents gather in support of the EMD and UCKG’s planning application unanimously rejected once more.
In October the government confirmed a Public Inquiry could now proceed and would consider both versions of UCKG’s proposals. Thursday 29 November was scheduled for the opening session of the Inquiry, prompting an additional 700 last-minute objections being sent to the Planning Inspectorate.
As the Inquiry began, the Cabinet of Waltham Forest Council met on Tuesday December 4 and voted unanimously to support a Compulsory Purchase Order of the EMD Cinema if UCKG’s plans were rejected by the government. Although a CPO had been debated on many occasions in the past, this was the first time it had been subjected to a vote and formally adopted as council policy.
The Public Inquiry ran for a period of three weeks and evidence was heard from the McGuffin Film Society, Waltham Forest Cinema Trust, Curzon Cinemas, Soho Theatre and a wide range of expert witnesses who all argued in support of the EMD’s revival. The Inquiry eventually concluded a few days before Christmas and it was announced that a final decision should be expected in May 2013.
A complete history of the McGuffin Film Society and the campaign to save the EMD Cinema – with exclusive photos and film footage – can be found here.
Recent media reports from the BBC, London Evening Standard and Waltham Forest Guardian can be found here, here, here and here. Articles from Snipe Magazine and the film journal Vertigo can be found here and here.
Hundreds of McGuffin supporters gather outside the EMD to mark the fifth anniversary of the venue’s closure in 2008.