Norman Plastow interview: The Wimbledon Society

Must have been around 1970. I was a member, not doing very much and then there was the first review of the Museum when they decided to reinvigorate that. I was on the Museum Committee and that when the Museum started getting its own funding. We had an appeal but not much of that is left now as we had it refurbished again in the 90s. But Guy Parsloe was then setting up the Local History Group and I was involved in that from the beginning. Soon after I became Chairman, much to my surprise. Peter Mason was before me and then he retired. I wasn't even on the Executive at that time but I suddenly jumped in at the deep end. I was Chairman for quite a long time and then decided it was time to step down and Lord Beswick took over but he only lasted a few years. Unfortunately he had an operation and died in the operation so I found myself back in the chair for another 10 or 15 years or so.

Battle for the town centre:

We fought an awful lot of battles. Particularly things like the town centre battle and you were always hitting your head against a brick wall. The public enquiry on the town centre lasted for three months and I attended pretty well every day. But if you were winning they changed the rules. It was quite incredible.

I remember the public meeting that was held when they first announced these proposed changes to the town centre. It was in the Civic Hall before they pulled it down. There were about 500 people and because it was a large hall you had to speak through a microphone at the front. There was a queue of people waiting to speak and everyone was speaking against the proposals. They had all sorts of objections to the whole thing. The chairman of the planning committee was up on the stage. At the end of the meeting at about half past ten at night the last person given the opportunity to speak said, well you've heard what we think about this. What are you going to do? The chairman said, well we're required to listen to what you say but we don't have any obligation to take any notice and we've no intention of doing so. And that was the end of the evening.

You can go into all sorts of things about this but the Town Hall and Civic Hall were listed buildings we got them listed. The Council, because it owned them, could not grant itself planning permission to change it from civic use to commercial use. So they got a developer on board who applied to them for planning permission to change its use and granted the permission to him.

Were they legally able to do that?

Well, everyone thought they were weren't as it was totally contrary to the meaning of the Planning Act which bans the Council from doing anything like this. Someone in Queens Road - an ordinary housewife there - objected so much that she took them to the High Court. The hearing lasted three days. We had three barristers to consult who offered their services free of charge and they were all in agreement that this was totally in breach of the planning rules. But the judge ruled that they hadn't actually broken the law, they had avoided the law. They hadn't even evaded it. They had avoided it by coming up with this new idea so it was dismissed. This poor woman was faced with £30,000 costs. We all contributed towards it but it was so frustrating. We have seen case after case after case like this with the Council. It doesn't matter which party is in. It's not party political. Whichever party is in they just so commercial...