What is the wait on work for?
Why is the Old Town Hall still waiting for roof repairs, exactly a year after it was promised ‘urgent’ work? And what is its long-term future? The Friends of the Old Town Hall say it’s time for big decisions to be made to secure this historic building for the people of Sheffield.
The city may be sweltering but the Old Town Hall’s roof still leaks badly and if it isn’t fixed soon, the winter rains will cause even more damage to the listed historic interior and put up the multi-million pound bill for restoration. ‘We’re really worried about this’, says Brian Holmshaw, joint Hon Sec of the Friends of the Old Town Hall. ‘One year ago the City Council published its Castlegate Kickstart package including funds to weatherproof the building if the owners won’t do it. We welcomed that. But the work still hasn’t started and won’t for months’.
‘Let’s get things straight’ he added. ‘The real responsibility for the mess in the Old Town Hall is the owners’ – GI London Properties Ltd. ‘They’ve owned the place since 2004 and have stood by while this important heritage asset has deteriorated. Why haven’t they maintained their property?’
The Friends know the Council has recently done preliminary survey work and legal processes have to be followed. But ‘until the Council serve a legal notice on G1 to force them to do repairs, the clock won’t start ticking. That’s why it will be winter before anything gets done’, says Brian.
‘We know G1 is now, after 14 years’ inactivity, going to make a planning application to redevelop the Old Town Hall’, says Valerie Bayliss, chair of the Friends. But they see two issues. ‘First, what do they want to do with it? We know, from expert work we commissioned last year, that the cost of restoration is so high it will be hugely difficult to make a commercial development pay’. There is real fear about the amount of ‘enabling development’, as it’s called, that could be needed to make a developer’s sums add up. In plain terms, says Valerie, ‘that means how much of this G2 listed building would have to go’. The Friends are convinced that any commercial scheme would involve the loss of most of the historic interiors – ‘everything that makes the building worth keeping’, says Valerie.
The second issue is that even if the Council approved a planning application from G1, there’s no guarantee any work would be done. ‘Planning consent carries no obligation to do the work’, says Brian. ‘There are cases in the city where this has happened. But it doesn’t have to be this way’.
The Friends, however, are ready to start the hard work of acquiring the building and bringing it back into use as an asset for Sheffield. With grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Architectural Heritage Fund, they’ve developed a viable, tested business model for new uses; obtained expert, costed assessments of the restoration work needed; and plans for phased restoration and re-use which, crucially, respect the historic fabric. They want the building in community ownership and are preparing to offer community shares to allow Sheffielders to invest in ownership. ‘We are ready’ says Valerie, ‘not only to raise the purchase price but to start the hard work of raising grants for the restoration costs’. But the only realistic course to acquisition – as G1 have never responded to any approach from the Friends – is for the Council to use its powers to compulsorily purchase and sell the building on to the Friends. ‘They’ve got the powers but not the cash’, says Brian. ‘We don’t have the powers but are ready to raise the cash’. The Friends are discussing with the Council how compulsory purchase proceedings could be taken in parallel with our community share offer. ‘We are looking for a serious commitment from the Council to start this journey with us’ says Valerie. ‘It’s the only way for Sheffield to be certain this great building can be restored to its former glory’.