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My beautiful launderette gets a change of use


Former chief inspector planning Chris Shepley reflects on the potential consequences of government proposals to allow the change of use of launderettes to "social venues such as cinemas, music or concert halls, gyms and swimming pools"

Chris ShepleyDropped one, I think,” said Mrs Braithwaite. Her husband’s trousers circled languidly in the background, while Mr Khan crawled round the floor looking for a missing sock. “Or maybe I knitted when I should have purled. Either way, there’ll be a hole in little George’s pyjamas.”
“Never mind all that,” said Mrs McTavish. “Have you seen CLG Technical Consultation on Planning, July 2014?” There was a bit of a silence. Mr Khan explained that he generally did read CLG consultation documents, but he’d been in Llandudno. Mrs Braithwaite said she’d been concentrating on Proposal M, Equipment Housing for Sewerage Undertakings.
Mrs McTavish produced the offending document and pointed out that the government was proposing to allow the change of use of launderettes to “social venues such as cinemas, music or concert halls, gyms and swimming pools” * – without the irritating need to apply for planning permission.
She read out Proposal G, entitled “Supporting the diversification of leisure uses on the High Street”, amidst an astonished silence. Which was followed by sighs of wonderment and dismay. 
They all agreed that Associated Wash Houses, who owned the launderette, would seize on this. Admittedly it would be difficult. It was tiny; there were only eight machines and three dryers. Mrs Braithwaite tried to imagine it being used as a music or concert hall. Quite apart from the smell of washing powder, surely the orchestra would fill the space; presumably the audience would have to stand on the pavement outside. A swimming pool would be better – water was, after all, the essence of the establishment; but a couple of strokes would propel even the weakest swimmer from the front door into Elsie’s office at the back. And would she be able to wash Mr B’s pants in the pool?
Mr Khan spotted that there were exclusions from the policy; but none seemed to apply to them. The launderette was not a scheduled monument, nor in a military explosives storage area. It had not been a Site of Special Scientific Interest since the time the council controversially ordered that unusual mould to be cleaned up. It was just a little shop on the High Street, the centre of their social life and the source of cleanliness, which Mrs Braithwaite had been told was next to godliness, although she had always suspected that proper godliness required a bit more than a clean jumper.

"A couple of strokes would propel even the weakest swimmer from the front door into Elsie's office at the back"

Mrs Braithwaite noted that, as usual, the Portas Review had been used to justify the change – but that had referred to “surplus” retail space in the High Street. There was nothing “surplus” about the launderette. Mr Khan supposed that inhabitants of the Westminster Village had little or no experience of launderettes and had no appreciation of their significance to ordinary folk. The idea of that nice Mr Cameron sitting on a hard chair watching his chinos spinning around seemed somehow unlikely.
Mr Khan fed coins into the spin dryer, and added that the proposal also applied to the Michael Gove Amusement Centre down the road. He often popped in there of an evening, for a bit of a flutter. CLG talked about such places becoming “boutique venues” such as art house cinemas and small fitness centres with personal trainers. He thought this might very well be the first time personal trainers had cropped up in a technical planning document. He wasn’t sure what an art house cinema was – it probably involved a lot of rudeness. Much nicer, surely, to play with that little crane thing and try to grab a gobstopper?
They admired the ingenuity of CLG in coming up with such strange ideas. Mr Khan agreed to draft the usual response. Mr Braithwaite’s trousers came to rest. Mrs McTavish’s laundry span merrily on its way. George’s pyjamas began to unravel.
* This is real. I didn’t make it up.
Launderette theatre by Oivind Hovland

Illustration | Oivind Hovland


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