Brixton Ritzy strike - April 2014 by Wasi Damiju
Strikes against Picturehouse’s pay policy shut down the Brixton Ritzy and other cinemas (Photo: Wasi Damiju via Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A cinema chain targeted by a union over its refusal to pay the London Living Wage has been picked to operate a cinema in the Greenwich Council-backed Spray Street development in Woolwich town centre.

Picturehouse Cinemas, part of the giant Cineworld group, will operate a five-screen venue if the scheme, which has been delayed because of a decision to list the old covered market structure, goes ahead. More detailed plans are due to be released in the new year.

The Labour-run council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Sizwe James, hailed Pcturehouse’s inclusion in the scheme as a “game-changing moment” in a press release issued by the developers – but the company has spent most of the past five years mired in industrial strife over pay at its cinemas.

Bectu, the union which represents workers in the entertainment industry, only suspended a lengthy boycott of the chain last month. Two of its former representatives at its Ritzy cinema in Brixton were awarded compensation for unfair dismissal following a dispute over the issue.

At its peak, the dispute involved strikes at Picturehouse venues across London, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offering his “full solidarity”. “Union reps should not be sacked for standing up for their members,” he added.

London mayor Sadiq Khan also offered his support, while Lambeth Council’s then-leader Lib Peck called the company’s refusal to pay LLW “a major issue” ahead of it opening a new cinema in West Norwood.

‘An issue across the industry’

The London Living Wage was increased last week by 20p to £10.75 per hour. However, Picturehouse staff in London are paid £9.60 per hour, with staff at the Ritzy – the only location where it recognises Bectu – earning £9.10 per hour, according to the company’s website. Picturehouse’s PR company, Hill and Knowlton, did not respond to a request to clarify whether those rates still applied.

Woolwich Public Market
Picturehouse is to take space in the revised Spray Street development

James, a councillor for Thamesmead Moorings ward, was quoted in a release issued by Spray Street’s developers, St Modwen and the housing association Notting Hill Genesis, on Monday morning. In it, he said: “This is a game changing moment for Woolwich. We know that residents both old and new have a shared aspiration for a cinema in the town centre alongside new homes and businesses and better public spaces. This announcement will bring us one step closer to realising that vision.

“Eltham High Street has had a massive boost since we opened the cinema there this year, and we’d love to welcome the borough’s second Picturehouse to Woolwich, which has been without a cinema of its own for many years.”

Council leader Danny Thorpe said on social media he was “absolutely delighted” by the news, but asked about the LLW issue, he responded: “I’ve yet to meet them, or the developer, but clearly this is something I will raise when I do.”

A council spokesperson told 853 on Tuesday: “We agree that it is regrettable that Picturehouse do not pay the London Living Wage and this seems to be an issue right across the cinema industry. Whilst the council was not involved in the selection of Picturehouse, nor does it have a contractual relationship with them or determine their wage levels, nevertheless it is in support of LLW and attempts to see the industry adopt it here in London.”

The spokesperson added that the council was committed to promoting its business rates relief scheme which aims to encourage local employers to pay LLW.

Two years ago, Lewisham Council picked a consortium including Curzon, which does pay the London Living Wage, over Picturehouse to lead a scheme to build a cinema and homes at the Ladywell Playtower. Campaigners the targeted the council with a petition urging it to reject Picturehouse, while the papers put to the council’s cabinet referenced the companies’ pay policies. Difficulties in restoring the building has seen the cost rise from £4.5m to £6.2m.

Cinema revival

The Spray Street scheme has already been the subject of controversy because it would involve the demolition of scores of small businesses run by BAME communities. The original plans involved the loss of the old Woolwich Public Market, but they have had to be revised because of a successful application to get the market roof listed. Street Feast was given a free lease of the building for a street food market, but it abandoned the site in January after being handed a £20,000 bill for electrical repairs.

Bringing a cinema back to Woolwich has been a council aspiration since the town’s last remaining cinema, the Coronet, originally an Odeon, closed in 1999. It is now the headquarters of New Wine Church.

SE London is seeing a cinema revival as developers and councils use the appeal of a night at the pictures to bring life to new schemes and flagging high streets. In April, Vue opened its doors in Eltham as part of a council scheme to boost its town centre, bringing a cinema back to the high street for the first time in 47 years. Vue’s PR company, Brunswick, did not respond to an enquiry about wage levels. Bexley Council is taking charge of a similar development in Sidcup, which lost its last cinema in 2000.

Two months ago, Lewisham Council oversaw the opening of Catford Mews, a cinema in an old shop unit, as it seeks to create a buzz around the area ahead of major redevelopment. The town’s ABC cinema closed in 2001. The controversial Lewisham Gateway scheme will also include a cinema at the foot of its tower blocks close to the site of the old Lewisham Odeon, which shut its doors in 1981. A small cinema has also opened in the revamped Fellowship & Star pub in Bellingham.

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