THE demolition of a former cinema which has been empty for more than eight years is finally underway.

The New Empire Theatre, in Alexandra Street, Southend, was bought by an unidentified company in Hong Kong for £750,000 last summer.

The company wants to transform the town centre site into flats, shops and a community centre, after plans to refurbish the building were abandoned.

Built in 1896, the building had become rundown and in 2015, its roof collapsed, destroying part of the first floor auditorium.

It was last rented by the New Empire Theatre Company in 2008, but the company left after a rent dispute with Richard Shea, who had acquired the building from ABC Cinemas in 1997.

In 2012, Southend Vineyard submitted a planning application to the council to use the building for religious services, but pulled out in January 2013 after it was revealed they would need to spend in excess of £2million to renovate the building.

Milton ward councillor Julian Ware-Lane welcomed the news that the demolition has now started.

He said: “It’s stood empty for such a long time and has had a lot of issues with antisocial behaviour. On top of that it has become a bit of an eyesore so yes, i am pleased progress is being made.

“I know there will be mixed feelings because it is another iconic building disappearing from the area and I do share some of that. But the bottom line is we need to do something to tidy up the area so I do welcome the plans.”

The building has been the target of vandals and antisocial behaviour while it has stood vacant.

In July 2015, arsonists set the roof on fire which then spread to the rest of the building.

In August last year, extra security was hired to prevent trespassers from breaking into the premises after concerns were raised when youngsters were seen on the roof of the building.

John Ricks, who went to school in Southend in the Fifties, said: “This is such a shame. There is so much history on that site.

“The theatre was the first of its kind in Southend, and was called ‘the prettiest theatre outside of London’ by press at its opening.”