The twin subjects of historic building conservation and good modern architecture have never ranked very high on the list of priorities of successive administrations of Herefordshire Council. Nor, indeed, do any individual councillors – of whatever political stripe – ever have much to contribute.
They all bang on about the Victorian Buttermarket being the jewel in the High Town crown (not that the likes of Blackshaw and Jarvis and Wilcox have read the Raj Quartets) yet they’ve stood by and watched for years as the place crumbles round the ears of the long-suffering market traders. They should be made to go and see the success stories in the covered market halls of Abergavenny and Cardiff.
And when did a new Hereford building win a major prize in any national awards scheme? Probably The Moat, the Cathedral School’s low-slung teaching block facing onto Castle Green, completed 10 years ago, though the recent timber-slatted extension to Hereford College of Arts did receive a commendation from the Civic Trust. One of five west Midlands buildings to feature in this year’s RIBA awards was Worcester’s wonderful golden Hive, which expects to welcome its one millionth library user this summer. It had already won a Civic Trust award, and the last time that a local building ‘did the double’ was All Saint’s church 15 years ago.
On the debit side, the city’s biggest architectural disgrace has to be the burned out shell of the former River Island and Card Factory shop units facing the Old House in High Town, ravaged by a huge fire in 2010 which involved around 100 firefighters. The hoarded-up empty shops – and the upper floors of the Booth Hall behind – appear to have been abandoned. A site notice proclaims the name of the local architects entrusted with the restoration (an uninspiring pastiche) which received planning permission a year ago, yet nary a sign of any building activity. The unofficial explanation is that though all insurance claims have been met, the building owners see little point in proceeding with a complex restoration which will simply deliver more empty shop units (on which business rates are payable) to join the others dotted across the city with ‘to let’ boards in their windows.
For over a year, the unsightly fire-damaged hulk has been sheathed by a 12m-high all-weather scaffolding structure. Clearly this was designed by structural engineers, since it coped with all the winter snow and spring’s gale-force winds. Structures like this don’t come cheap – probably £1,000 per week in rental charges – so the building’s owners obviously reckon sitting out the current economic conditions is worth the £50,000 a year.
The old Booth Hall Hotel is a very rare example of a surviving merchant’s guild building, with parts of the ceiling of its first floor dining room (miraculously undamaged by the fire) dating to around 1400. How is it possible for a powerful local authority, armed to the teeth with conservation officers and compulsory notice enforcement legislation, to turn a blind eye to such a situation? If this was Chester or Norwich or Salisbury, such municipal lethargy would never be tolerated.
Have we heard any protests from the city’s official conservation guardian angels, Hereford Civic Society? We have not. Or the local Chamber of Commerce? Nope. Will English Heritage be sending one of its inspectors down from Birmingham: the Booth Hall is a Grade II listed structure? Don’t hold your breath. Has the Bishop of Hereford published a letter of protest in the Hereford Times? Too busy packing for his September retirement.
To date, the sole protest has come from a brave group of lady members of the Hereford Guild of Guides, who told the council in no uncertain terms this spring that High Town’s fire-damaged block would be a huge embarrassment to its volunteer members, who this summer will have to show visitors around the city’s historic core and admit that nothing whatsoever is being done to tidy up this civic eyesore.