PLANS to bulldoze a New Forest theatre have sparked claims that the area is in danger of becoming a "cultural desert".

Civic chiefs have approved an application to replace the Waterside Theatre in Long Lane, Holbury, with a sports pavilion and a community garden.

The large facility - a former cinema - was built about 70 years ago to serve workers at the neighbouring Fawley refinery.

New Forest Post:

Cllr David Harrison, who represents part of the Waterside area, said it was "a shame" that Esso's application to redevelop the site had been approved.

He added: "I am sure a lot of local people will have fond memories of attending events at this facility over many years.

"I can recall going to watch a film called the Battle of the Bulge with my Dad. I have also seen a number of live events, including music, singing and dancing - all the better because it was a large theatre with a proper stage."

Cllr Harrison said venues where musicians and other artists could perform were being lost in the Forest "at an alarming rate".

He added: "We are in danger of becoming a bit of a cultural desert.

"Luckily we still have places like Forest Forge and Hanger Farm. However, the people who run these have experienced a very tough year because of the restrictions in place to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus."

The theatre closed in 2016 and the application to redevelop the site sparked 118 letters of support.

But the scheme was opposed by Tom Clarke, representing the Theatres Trust, who told members of the district council's planning committee that Esso had failed to "appreciate, assess or investigate" the building's potential.

New Forest Post:

Other objectors included Christine Talbot of the Waterside Musical Society.

In a letter to the council she said: "After (the theatre's) closure the Waterside Theatre Company closed and the Waterside Musical Society struggled to find a suitable venue for its productions.

"There was only one local venue that could provide a stage area and a large enough seating area for the audience.

"This was in a local school. However, due to escalating hire costs it is highly unlikely the society will be able to stage many more shows."

But Esso's representative at the committee meeting, Simon Downing, said: "We believe the proposal is the most sustainable way forward for the site.

"It is far more aesthetically pleasing and provides the community with a sports facility for many years to come."