NP speak to Albertina McNeill about the Save the Starlite campaign
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how and why got involved with/started save the Starlite?
I don’t want too much attention focused on me as I feel it’s the stars who played the venue that deserve the attention, not those behind the campaign. I moved to Greenford in 1991. In 2012 I had a daily photo blog about the area called Greenford 365 which showed some of the good and bad things about it. I’ve just started posting on a new blog called Positive Greenford. I’d been told about the Starlite by a neighbour who remembered seeing Geno Washington and Stevie Wonder play there, and heard from someone else that Pink Floyd had gigged in Greenford but had thought it was wishful thinking. In 2012 the Greenford and Northolt Gazette carried a story about plans to demolish an old cinema so I went to take photos of it for the blog because I realised that it must be the place. I began to discover the famous names that played there and couldn’t believe that we were losing such an asset without a fight. I tried writing to the Gazette but failed to attract any support until one letter was published followed soon after by an article. I set up the Facebook page and Twitter account. In the last few months I’ve been joined by Frank Kilduff of the North Greenford Residents’ Association, David Flack of the Sudbury Town Residents’ Association (with a particular interest in the Starlite’s time as an Odeon), Erol Direkoglu, a former planning officer who has the Starlite on his doorstep and Bob Little, an Acton based community activist with an interest in music and popular culture.
What are the main aims of the campaign?
Prevent the demolition and save the building for community use because of its significance to our music heritage and potential as a focus for regeneration. Make Allendale Road a destination rather than somewhere you drive through.
What will the benefits be of saving the Starlite?
Once I got to Allendale Road I can honestly say I was shocked at how quiet the street is, in fact my first thought was “How can we use the Starlite to attract people with money to spend to the area and increase footfall for these traders?” The idea of saving local music heritage and regenerating the streets around it developed simultaneously. I wondered whether the building could be used for exhibitions (compare with the Fashion and Textile Museum http://ftmlondon.org/), it’s close to Sudbury Town Underground station which would bring tourists from central London but I also felt it had potential as a community or arts centre. I could see from the parking restrictions that there were already problems so felt that it would need to appeal to those who either lived within walking distance or did not have access to their cars. That meant local residents and tourists. We need them to come to Allendale Road, spend some money and go away again! The tourists would be drawn by the music heritage (I’d become aware of the Abbey Road phenomenon where people from around the world have their photos taken as they cross the road in the same way that the Beatles did for their album cover). At the time I was unaware that UK Music had published a report about the value of music heritage tourism to the UK. I realised that saving the Starlite could mean jobs and increased prosperity for Greenford, causing the homes around it to increase in value.
What are the consequences if it becomes just another block of flats?
The presence of a lot more people who will need GPs, schools, hospitals and parking spaces. I spoke to someone who works in planning and he thought the potential resident population of the development would be around 150 people. Unfortunately a lot of homes in Greenford are now bought to let for high rents so are sometimes shared by more people that they are intended for. The thirty-nine proposed flats would only have fourteen off street parking spaces. This is hopelessly unrealistic. It is now common to see three or more cars parked on what was the front garden of a house plus one at the kerb. There is a real danger that Greenford will become a dormitory suburb, where you just go home to eat and sleep. I have become very concerned that planning decisions like the one concerning the Starlite are helping to make people more isolated and dependent on the internet and the authorities for help rather than each other. There was a time when local people got their information (OK, gossip) and support from neigbours who they met and got to know in small shops, pubs and post offices. These are disappearing for a range of reasons. Supermarkets are further away and not really the place for a chat. When I first visited the Starlite I found myself talking to an elderly lady who had lived nearby for decades. It was a bitterly cold day and it must have taken considerable effort on her part to stand for so long but she talked to me for some time, telling me about her husband, the wake held for him at the pub which was closed a week later and demolished to make way for a block of flats. She had played bingo at the Starlite but there is nowhere to socialise now. It occurred to me that this might be the only conversation she had that day and that thought just breaks my heart. There are many lonely elderly people in Greenford who could benefit from a place within walking distance of home they could visit for some company. There are also young mums who would like to meet at a playgroup. If we want to build resilient self supporting societies we should be providing spaces where these encounters can happen not just places where we sleep. Increasingly our neighbours are strangers who move on before we get a chance to know them and who network online. We would rather log on that knock on a door for help. Another issue is the impact that developments have on local diversity. Every block of flats seems to look like the last one. If we lose the Starlite that piece of Greenford will just look like anywhere else.
Have you had any support from Ealing council/Brent council/local MPs?
One North Greenford ward councillor got as far as asking me to put together a business plan but I couldn’t get the advice I needed at the time (although that’s about to change). Another displayed a lack of understanding as to the value of music heritage. Unfortunately some of our elected representatives didn’t grow up listening to Pink Floyd or David Bowie or the Small Faces so they don’t get it. Prospective councillors followed the campaign’s Twitter account until they were elected, at which point they set up different accounts. Brent has no influence over planning decisions made about the Starlite as it is just inside Ealing’s boundary. The local MP has an interest in local music heritage (if Dusty Springfield had played the Starlite he would probably throw himself in front of the bulldozers) and, given that he played in bands in the area at the time, probably counts as a piece of music heritage in his own right. He approached me at a public event after the Gazette published an article about the Starlite but did not get back to me as he said he would. In the end it is the council that counts when it comes to planning decisions. The fact is that housing, even if it is largely the unaffordable kind, is what they want to be seen to be providing. The planning department has made a real effort to push this project through, while at the same time Ealing Council wants to be seen as proud of the borough’s music heritage. It feels as though only certain parts of the borough are posh enough to deserve some heritage and that Greenford is destined to be a dormitory. I must add that London Assembly members Onkhar Sahota (Labour) and Darren Johnson (Green) have been very supportive, as have the local branch of UKIP who approached me to offer their help. Bob Little is the communities spokesman for UKIP.
What can the community do to help?
If they are online and use social media they can like and share the Facebook page and follow the Twitter account. They can begin emailing local councillors to ask them why an asset like the Starlite was allowed to rot for so long yet has now become such a priority for development that the planning department used every trick in the book to smooth the application’s passage to acceptance. They can write to Boris Johnson to ask why a rare example of London’s music heritage might be demolished when it could draw tourists to the city. If they do not have internet access they can write letters. The campaign needs a surge of grass roots support, not celebrity endorsements. The general election is on the way and every vote counts because it wil send a message to the party that’s in control of the borough at the moment. Our local heritage and the Starlite in particular needs to be made an election issue. The campaign also needs expertise when it comes to fundraising and business management. This does need to come from within Greenford to make it a truly hyperlocal endeavour. It is also absolutely essential that people show up for demos if asked. Low turn outs make those who do make the effort feel very self conscious as well as sending out the wrong message. No one will do it for you, it is essential that these events are supported.
At what stage of the planning process are we? Is it ‘too late’?
The planning application was accepted by the committee but one member told me that it is not too late and the fact is that until the demolition takes place there is hope.
What is next for the campaign?
I’m about to get some help with a business plan but we are regrouping and waiting to see if they will register it as a community asset. It has been denied heritage listing because it was altered in the 1960s. Unfortunately you can’t list a building because of what went on in it as yet.
Is there anywhere to go out socially in this area of Greenford/Sudbury? (If not where do you go?)
(Hollow laugh) There is a restaurant. Pubs are a long walk or bus ride away and we have a long way to go before the cinema is built at the GSK site. There is now a cafe at Sudbury Town Station. There is no post office, just a couple of general stores, a hairdresser, a cab firm, a nursery and a noodle take away. It’s Ealing, Harrow or central London for anything fun, even though there is a venue that could hold events for hundreds of people on the doorstep. The Starlite could have a cafe open during the day, a foyer where knitting/crochet groups could meet over tea or something stronger and a space for zumba or yoga when it isn’t being used for exhibitions or gigs.