Mitcham is changing. Its proud history has never been in doubt but Mitcham has struggled to put itself on the map of places to visit or as somewhere to go out for the evening. It is a struggle even to find a cup of coffee within ten minutes walk of the Vestry Hall. So it is hardly surprising that for years there has been nowhere to see a play, watch a film or take in an exhibition. Community arts has been the exception and not the norm and local schoolchildren have too often had to go elsewhere to be inspired by creativity and culture. For arts and culture Merton has looked to Wimbledon with its three theatres, arts college, book festival, arts trail and other delights.
Yet the demand for places to go and things to do in Mitcham is rising rapidly. Whether it be people who have lived here for years or new people arriving there is a pent up demand which needs to be met. The average age of people living in Cricket Green ward is now under 35. Ethnic diversity has increased by over 50% since 2001. The opening of Mitcham Eastfields station and major housing developments such as on the old gasworks site are drawing new people into the area. This is generating new demands and Mitcham is changing. Some early signs were the roaring success of the Canons outdoor cinema in 2013 and the popularity of the few community arts event which have won through on the back of small grants and other funds.
Now Mitcham has three major cultural investments in the pipeline and we are on the cusp of turning it from a desert to an oasis of drama, film, music and the arts. First up are Merton Council’s plans for a cinema on the Sibthorpe Road car park. The details are still being finalised and no contracts have been signed but we could soon see the first commercial cinema in Mitcham since the 1,500 seater Majestic closed in 1961. The impact on Mitcham town centre will be dramatic. More people, more visitors and much more going on in the evening. This will spin off into local shops and new restaurants and, supported by the physical improvements currently going on in the town centre, it will make the area much more welcoming at night.
Then there are the community’s plans for the old fire station tucked behind the Vestry Hall on Lower Green West. After nearly 100 years service this has been made redundant by the opening of a brand new fire station near Mitcham tram stop. The building is locally listed and locally loved. Its sensitive location in the heart of Merton’s first Conservation Area and alongside Mitcham’s main civic building – the Vestry Hall – make it ideal for community use. Who doesn’t think a community arts centre would be a better alternative than a drive through McDonalds, Tesco Metro or yet another block of flats? And this is no whimsical idea. We have teamed up with the award winning arts charity Theatre6 to develop a strong business case and opened up the conversation with London Fire Brigade and its agents. Theatre6 makes for the perfect partner – working with Cricket Green School locally and winning the 2014 Evening Standard award for Best Musical in the West End. It is well versed in both community arts and big, national productions. Our plans for the old fire station include a flexible arts and performance space in the old engine house, local café and bar facilities, meeting rooms and the option of start-up space for creative and arts-based business. It could be a focus for local schools, support a community cinema club, become a meeting place for local groups and be the place to go to catch up with friends over a coffee. We know there is a huge local appetite from the groundswell of support the plans have received. The site is permitted for community use in Merton’s land use plan, Merton Council controls access to the site, the building lies empty and Theatre6 and Mitcham Cricket Green Community & Heritage are ready to go.
While the old fire station will concentrate on local needs there is also exciting potential in the future of The Canons becoming a cultural centre that draws in people from much further afield. This would be backed by nearly £4m of investment now being secured by Merton Council, Friends of the Canons, Mitcham Society and ourselves from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The plans are still being developed but they are being designed to appeal to local people and to attract visitors from a much wider area. The ideas already include restoring key rooms for visitors, offering a venue for special family occasions, opening up Madeira Hall for major events and providing new catering facilities. This will all benefit from significant investment in the surrounding open spaces to restore important heritage assets, celebrate its rich sporting history and enhance the area’s landscape and wildlife.
We’ve heard some people asking whether there is enough demand in Mitcham to cope with so many new places to go. Emphatically yes. The population is changing, there is pent up demand to be met and there are different markets to be reached. The fire station meets very local needs while the Canons and new cinema will appeal well beyond Mitcham. Seeing the latest blockbuster in the town centre doesn’t compete with the community cinema club in the fire station. Listening to Merton Music Foundation in Madeira Hall doesn’t clash with local schools rehearsing for a community play in the fire station. And there is enough coffee to go round for them all!
We have even heard some query whether talk of the arts and culture is really appropriate for Mitcham, dismissing it as something which will do little for the people who live here. We have no time for people who want to put Mitcham down and are confident these siren voices will be rapidly drowned out. Arts and culture are essential to everyone’s lives. They’re not elite. They support aspiration, open people’s eyes, bring people together and offer new experiences. Whether it be the Big Draw or Gareth Malone’s latest community choir we have all seen how people respond to the opportunity to get involved. Mitcham deserves more.
Just two year’s ago we brought people together to develop our Cricket Green Charter. It concluded that “there should be more reasons for people to linger and things to see and do, including in the evening”; that “there should be a community arts centre providing a focus for the area and opportunities to meet” and that The Canons, Park Place and their grounds “should be restored, given greater unity and become a thriving centre of cultural and leisure activity which appeals beyond the local area”. Within another two years this could all be a reality, and we could have a new Majestic cinema back in the town centre too boot. Bring it on!