Newsletter 18, which we sent round on 8 September, discussed briefly the planning application submitted for the Old Town Hall. We’ve now had a chance to look at it in detail, and concluded there were a few things to welcome but a lot more that we didn’t like at all. So we have sent formal objections to the City Council, and the letter is reproduced below.
Don’t forget, anyone can send in comments – just find the applications on the Council’s planning applications website using the numbers below or by putting ‘Castle Street’ into the search box.
And thanks to those who came to our meeting on the 23rd and helped with thinking through how best to respond. We understand the Planning Committee will take the application on 19 November (not in December as we were first told) and we’ll be there! The meeting will be in the Town Hall, Pinstone Street, and starts at 2 pm.
Planning Applications No: 19/03053/LBC and No: 19/03052/FUL
The Friends of the Old Town Hall (FOTH) object to these applications. They concern a major listed building in the city centre which has been empty and neglected for over 20 years. FOTH is as concerned as anyone else to see the building restored and re-used. However, the need for restoration should not outweigh the need (reflected in both the NPPF and the City Council’s own planning guidance) for sympathetic and appropriate restoration. We do not believe these applications achieve an appropriate balance.
We welcome some features of the proposals; as well as the readiness of the developer to regenerate the building and restore an important heritage asset to use, FOTH welcomes the proposal to clean the exterior and to leave the exterior largely unchanged, apart from necessary signage; and to restore the marble columns of the Judges’ Entrance and the wrought iron gates to the vehicle entrance. There are aspects to which we do not object, mainly the proposal to convert the 1955 wing to apartments; while it is listed, like the rest of the building, it does not contain historic features demanding preservation. The proposal for the former cells is imaginative, though not the only potential solution for repurposing this part of the building. We have no objection in principle to the proposed mix of uses for the building, while noting that these are not the only feasible and practical uses that could be introduced.
Beyond that, however, we have serious concerns and believe the application is not acceptable in its present form. Overall, the thinness of the application make it difficult to assess fully the degree of harm it would do to the listed building, but there is sufficient evidence to lead us to the conclusions and comments below.
- We have carefully considered the documentation supporting the application; we conclude that in some respects it is seriously deficient. There are no images of any of the planned interiors, which would be usual in an application of this importance and extent.
- The Design and Access Statement is notably thin. It makes numerous unsubstantiated claims, eg that the proposals are sensitive to…heritage concerns”, that they “very strongly respect the listing and the key architectural features of the building that must be protected” and will “actively enhance as well as preserve the historic significance of the heritage asset”. These are contradicted in the Heritage Statement, which is explicit that the plans damage the evidential value of the fabric – see below. The plans themselves, when scrutinised, demonstrate that the historic significance will be very largely destroyed. The D&A Statement also underplays the extent of the planned internal alterations. In some cases this is not significant but there are others where it matters a lot – see below.
- The Heritage Statement is similarly misleading. By erecting an artificial assumption that the Georgian core of the building is the ‘Old Town Hall’, it gives itself a basis for dismissing some proposed alterations to later fabric as trivial and acceptable because they are ‘not original’. This is unacceptable. It misrepresents the development and significance of the building as a whole. The successive extensions reflect changes in levels of demand for the services based in the building and are an integral part of its historic and architectural evolution and hence the basis for understanding its significance. And of course the entire building is listed.
- We object to the proposed wall to be erected on Levels 2-3, in the former Waiting Hall, between the proposed reception area and the ornate entrance to Courtroom 1. This intrusion will, as the Heritage Statement concedes, alter “the understanding of the original size of this space….. it will remove the view of the Doric columns and doorways with pediments above from the southern side of the entrance area”. We do not agree that this constitutes ‘minor to moderate impact”. No rationale is presented for the insertion of this wall and the floorplan suggest it has no practical purpose.
- We object strongly to the proposals that affect the three main courtrooms, nos 1, 2 and 3. Each of these is currently complete in terms of furnishings and fittings, and these are of course covered by the listing. The developer proposes to remove virtually all of these; see Heritage Statement para 6.9, about Court 1: “the benches for the judge, magistrate and public gallery remain in situ….it is, arguably, one of the most important rooms in the building. The proposal seeks to remove the benches in order to create a living space and insert bathroom areas in the south west and south east areas”.
The Schedule of Repairs for Court 1 refers to the removal of all pews [sic]. It is clear from the floor plans that as well as the specified benches, all furnishings in the well of the court are intended to go, to create open space. The Heritage Statement admits that “these changes will reduce the evidential value of the building and, to a degree, distort the understanding of the current layout and use of space”. It continues “This will also be replicated in the other court rooms in the building which retain historic fabric”. This is presumably a reference to Courts 2 and 3, and is borne out by the floor plans. There is no comment on courts 4 and 5, one of which retains its good-quality furnishings (probably 1950s). This will also , the plans indicate, disappear in conversion to apartments. The overall impact is that the legibility of the OTH as a courthouse will go completely. This is unacceptable and, we believe, unnecessary. While it may be reasonable not to retain some of the courtroom fabric there is no good case for removing it entirely.
We draw attention to the Council’s planning guidance which states that “Proposals for internal or external alterations which would affect the special interest of a Listed Building will be expected to preserve the character and appearance of the building and, where appropriate, to preserve or repair original details and features of interest” and “Proposals for change of use will be expected to preserve the character of the building”. The proposals for the courtrooms are not consistent with this guidance.
- Even if it is agreed that some of the courtroom fittings may be removed, we draw attention to the statement that the developer has no plans for what to do with the fittings and furnishings he proposes to remove. In relation to Court 1, and Court 1 alone, there is reference to “Storage and future safeguarding of Pews [sic]” as to be “confirmed during further consultation with Conservation Officers”. Nothing is said about the furnishings of the other courts. All the courtroom furnishings and fittings are of course listed. No consent for the applications should be contemplated until the issue of their future has been resolved.
In conclusion, while we recognise the inevitability of some changes to interior features so as to secure re-use, we believe the balance proposed between conservation and alteration is unacceptable and that the application should not be accepted in its current form. The Council should seek more information on the detail of the proposals for each of the significant spaces within the building so as to be able to assess the true impact of the developer’s proposals on this heritage asset. It should then ensure that the evidential value of the building as a courthouse is not totally destroyed.