Historic England’s Response to the Upper Precinct

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Planning permission for the redevelopment of the Upper Precinct was granted in 2017. However the scheme caused considerable concern to Historic England and following their recommendation, the Precinct was listed by the Secretary of State for the Environment. As a result of this intervention, Listed Building consent is now required for the development to go ahead. The developers have resubmitted their plans with only minor amendments and the application is shortly to be considered by the Council’s Planning Committee.

As part of the consideration of the planning application, the Council is obliged to consider the views of Historic England.

It is no longer possible to see the results of consultation on the Council’s Planning Portal, but Historic England has provided us with a copy of their response, which as a service to the citizens of Coventry we publish in  full below, without comment.

HistoricEngland

Dear Mr D’Onofrio

Arrangements for Handling Heritage Applications Direction 2015 & T&CP (Development Management Procedure) (England) Order 2015 & Planning (Listed Buildings & Conservation Areas) Regulations 1990

UPPER PRECINCT, SMITHFORD WAY, COVENTRY, CV1 1QS

Application Nos LB/2018/2494 & S73M/2018/2495

Thank you for your letters of 29 August 2018 regarding the above applications for listed building consent and planning permission. On the basis of the information available to date, we offer the following advice to assist your authority in determining the applications.

Summary
The scheme encompasses works to the buildings covered by four recent Grade II listings which include much of the Upper Precinct. Those listings recognise the significance of the site as the heart of the heroic post-war redevelopment of Coventry undertaken by the City Council, creating one of the first pedestrianised shopping areas in Europe. Within the proposals there are a number of works that would cause harm to the listed buildings. Cumulatively these works amount to substantial harm to the significance of the listed buildings comprising the Upper Precinct, although there are also some clear heritage benefits as a part of the scheme. In the overall planning balance, your authority will need to be convinced that the substantial harm caused to the listed buildings is justified, in line with Government legislation and policy.

Historic England Advice
Significance
The scheme encompasses works to the buildings covered by four recent Grade II listings (dated 23 March 2018) which include much of the Upper Precinct (Former British Home Stores & Carphone Warehouse; Marks and Spencer and 4-10 Smithford Way; Upper Precinct, North and South Link Blocks and Piazza). The listings recognise the significance of the precinct as the heart of the heroic post-war redevelopment of Coventry undertaken by the City Council, and that the precinct was one of the first pedestrianised shopping areas in Europe. They comprise a set of accomplished examples of post-war commercial buildings. They are elegantly detailed, including the canopies and colonnades, with a careful selection of good quality materials that are integral to the quality of the design. A number of changes were made to the Precinct in the 1990s which caused some damage, but the complex still retains its special architectural and historic significance.

Impact
These buildings were listed after the scheme for the refurbishment of the Upper
Precinct shopping centre was granted planning permission, hence the need for listed building consent and a revised planning application to take account of some changes to the scheme.

Within the proposals there are a number of works that would cause harm to the significance of the listed buildings. The most serious elements of that harm consist of:

the removal of canopies from both elevations of M&S;
the removal of canopies from both elevations of the former BHS;
the formation of two story shop front in north elevation of the former BHS;
the infilling the colonnade and the full enclosure of the inner line of columns on the former Leofric Hotel block.

These involve loss and change to some of the most significant parts of the architecture which are part of the revolutionary concept of a pedestrianised shopping centre. In addition there are number of other less damaging changes, including:

the removal of an internal mezzanine from the former BHS;
the new back wall in modern cladding on north (rear) wall of north link block;
the new canopy over the staircase inserted in the walkway of the south link
buildings;
advancing the shop fronts to front edge of the walkways in the link blocks;
the removal of the bridges connecting the link blocks with no replacements
(1990s fabric replacing earlier structures).

Cumulatively these works amount to substantial harm to the significance of the listed buildings comprising the Upper Precinct.

There are also some undoubted heritage benefits within the scheme, particularly:

the removal of the 1990s ‘Elephants trunk’ (escalators);
the removal of the intrusive 1990s ramp;
the restoration/recreation of the railings and associated lighting on the first floor walkways of the link buildings to their 1950s form.

These reverse many of the damaging changes to the Precinct that were made in the 1990s. While these are very positive benefits, they do not outweigh the cumulative impact of the proposed scheme.

Policy
In determining these applications you should bear in mind the statutory duty of sections 16(2) and 66(1) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 to have special regard to the desirability of preserving listed buildings or their setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which they possess.

At the heart of Government’s recently revised National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF, July 2018) is a presumption in favour of sustainable development which in this context means guiding development towards a solution that achieves a balance between the protection and enhancement of the historic environment with the economic and social objectives (paragraph 8). The relevant tests to be applied to this application include those set out in paragraphs 193-195.

The level of harm caused by the scheme determines the criteria to be used to guide you in making a decision on the listed building consent application. Harm is categorised in the NPPF as ‘substantial’, or ‘less than substantial’, and in this case we believe this amounts to substantial. So the criteria set out in paragraph 195 apply:

Where a proposed development will lead to substantial harm to or total loss of significance of a designated heritage asset, local planning authorities should refuse consent, unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or total loss is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss, or all of the following apply:

a) the nature of the heritage asset prevents all reasonable uses of the site;
and
b) no viable use of the heritage asset itself can be found in the medium term
through appropriate marketing that will enable its conservation; and
c) conservation by grant-funding or some form of not for profit, charitable or
public ownership is demonstrably not possible; and
d) the harm or loss is outweighed by the benefit of bringing the site back into
use.

Position
We strongly support the city’s objectives to have a vibrant shopping centre sustaining the overall economy of the city through their retail offer and believe that the architectural heritage of the precinct can be a unique selling point. However, as set out above we believe that cumulatively the works proposed amount to substantial harm.

To approve the scheme in line with national legislation, policy and guidance your authority will need to be convinced that the benefits outweigh the harm.

During the pre-application discussions the applicant provided us with a report justifying the need for these proposals in economic terms. We advised that this should be submitted as a part of the application. The report was not included with the applications, and we continue to believe that it is a core part of the evidence for the scheme and needs to be considered by your authority as part of the decision-making process.

Normally in looking at viability we would expect a full financial assessment, including market testing. However, the report shared with us was unusual in that the argument was based on a more fundamental case: that three of the key retail units are unviable because nobody is willing to take on the tenancies without the proposed alterations.

We accepted the analysis offered regarding the retail situation and that Coventry shopping centre, in order to compete in the challenging retail market and to move up the Harper Dennis Hobbs Vitality index, needs to be improved to attract top of the range retailers. We also agreed that for the development to obtain finance, key anchor tenants must be secured as pre-lets to give both funders and other prospective tenants confidence. We endorsed the view that the retail market was very challenging and that potential tenants have a strong hand in lease negotiations, reinforced by the announcement of further store closures by Marks and Spencer. We also appreciate that the situation has not improved since we considered the report.

However, the economic evidence was based on the untested supposition that no AAA tenant would be prepared to lease the former BHS unit with the canopies in situ. The developer’s contention was that this meant that other prospective tenants would not take the space, which in turn made the entire proposal unviable. The only way to really test this presumption would be to market test the space. However, even this test is not 100% reliable as there are many complex economic factors as to why a retailer will or will not take space, and it would be impossible to isolate the canopies as being the
sole factor.

While it was not definitively proven that the retention of the canopies and the colonnades were the critical elements that made the development unviable, on the basis of the viability report we concluded that these works are probably necessary to the economic success of the scheme and that they may be justified if required by prospective tenants.

Clearly the final decision balancing the benefits and harm is one for your authority. We suggest that you need to consider the report as part of the application, updated as necessary to account for the changing market conditions, to test the arguments made. The consideration is whether, on balance, the public benefits that the scheme promises to deliver of a vibrant shopping centre sustaining the buildings and the overall economy of the city, will outweigh the harm to the heritage.

If you were minded to grant consent it would be important to ensure that the works were only undertaken as part of a definitive scheme which realised the full suite of heritage benefits. We would recommend that this should be secured through appropriate mechanisms such as milestones within the Section 106 and appropriate conditions. In particular we recommend that the demolition works be subject to a Section 106 agreement and/or condition along the lines that:

The removal of the canopies and the enclosure of the colonnades should not
take place (in each instance) until the respective tenants have signed leases
and confirmed in writing that they will not take the space unless the canopies
are removed.

Recommendation
Historic England has concerns regarding the applications on heritage grounds.

Despite some heritage benefits of the scheme, the cumulative impact of the proposals causes substantial harm to the listed buildings. We do, however, recognise the uniquely challenging economic circumstances and the arguments set out in the viability report and your authority will need to weigh these carefully in coming to a balanced decision.

We consider that the issues and safeguards outlined above need to be addressed in order for the applications to meet the requirements of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the NPPF, particularly at paragraph 195.

Your authority should take these representations into account and seek amendments, safeguards or further information as set out in our advice. If there are any material changes to the proposals, or you would like further advice, please contact us.

Nicholas Molyneux
Principal Inspector of Historic Buildings and Areas
E-mail: nicholas.molyneux@HistoricEngland.org.uk

You can see the Listed Building application here and the application to amend the conditions here.

Rotterdam Shows How to Celebrate its 1950’s Architecture

Linjbaan_1

Look at this picture and it could be Coventry!

With the future plans for the recently listed Upper Precinct currently being considered, it was interesting to read a recent Guardian article about Rotterdam in the series “Walking the Streets”. This showed a remarkable similarity to our own city. You can read the full article here.

Linjbaan_9

Seen by night, with a Coventry built Triumph Herald parked in front, you could easily think that you were looking at an old photo of Coventry.

Linjbaan_11

But this is not Coventry but Lijnbaan in Rotterdam. The historic centre of Rotterdam was largely destroyed by bombing during the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940. The Lijnbaan was rebuilt as what was described as a ‘living room for the city’ – “a revolutionary concept inspiring imitations from Warsaw to Stevenage” – the first traffic free precinct in the world.

“The old centre had its faults: narrow streets, alleys and canals that hindered the passage of traffic. The post-war city council seized the opportunity to build a modern centre and straighten the street pattern. The idea was to give Rotterdammers “what they had, but improved and refined”, according to the architect Jo van den Broek, who embodied the optimistic spirit that ruled Rotterdam at the time.”

“The absence of traffic created an atmosphere of safety and relaxation.”

“The Lijnbaan was a luxurious oasis built upon an open wound. It was an optimistic gesture towards the future, it expressed the hope for a better life after the war. People used to put on their best clothes when they went there.”

It was built as a straight precinct running from the main road and in line with the clock tower at the other end, covered pathways all around with covered crossover point along the way with different turn offs.

Linjbaan_plan

Sadly it declined in the 80s and 90’s. The original shopkeepers retired or left the area, to be replaced by large chains solely intent on turnover. Where once there had been a variety of high-end shops, there was now a multitude of cheap clothing and shoe shops. It attracted a different crowd. The terraces and aviaries disappeared, and people threw rubbish in the empty flower boxes.

At night the roller shutters went down and the Lijnbaan became a no-go area, where people were robbed and football hooligans would gather after games. “Nobody was interested in the Lijnbaan anymore,” Aarsen explains. “Most people regarded it as a heap of old trash”.

“All kinds of solutions were suggested by urban planners, from demolishing part of the complex to putting a giant roof over the complete promenade. In the end not much happened. New canopies of plexiglass were installed in the 1990s, to little effect because not all shopkeepers participated.”

However the Doccomomo Foundation, which promotes architecture of the Modern Movement, saw the Lijnbaan as an innovative example of postwar architecture. Thanks to its efforts, the street acquired the national heritage status in 2010.

Nowadays the Lijnbaan has resurfaced as an area where a mainly young public comes to shop and meet. The roller shutters have gone and the place feels safe again. “The Lijnbaan is a fine example of a style we call mid-century modern,” says the architect Robert Winkel. “There’s a growing appreciation for this worldwide. We are bringing back the wooden canopies and the original shopfronts.”

Linjbaan_modern

“When you see the effect, it’s easy to understand why so many people came to marvel at the Lijnbaan in the past. The Lijnbaan always was the living room of Rotterdam and now we are giving it back to the city.”

It would be nice for this to happen to Coventry and show some pride in our Post War architecture. The Upper Precinct has been listed by Historic England, but the new developers want to cut out a lot of the original features and take away all the canopies and covered ways. The Coventry Society, Historic England and the Twentieth Century Society have all pointed out the weaknesses of the plans and the missed opportunities to regenerate our city in a way that respects our own 1950s heritage and the quality of the Gibson’s original vision of. Perhaps what has happened to Lijnbaan could show the council and developers the way forward.

There are more photos of the Linjbaan on our main website – here.

The main Coventry Society website is at www.coventrysociety.org.uk

Campaign to Save the Coventry Cross

CoventryCross_darkskies

After careful consideration the Coventry Society has decided to formally oppose the demolition of the Coventry Cross and has launched a petition in support of this campaign.

The Society is not opposed in principle to the relocation of the Coventry Cross, providing that what replaces it is appropriate to the historic environment around County Hall, Holy Trinity and the Old Cathedral and that a suitable location is found for the reconstruction of the Cross with a timetable and full budget to fund it.

However this is not what is on the table. Despite what you may have read elsewhere, there is no plan to rebuild the Cross, no budget for doing so and no plan of what will replace the Cross in Coventry’s foremost Conservation Area. The plan is for the monument to go into storage and if the budget for rebuilding it is not found it will stay there, like so many other works of Public Art in the city.

At the heart of the issue is the fact that the replica cross is located within the City’s Hill Top Conservation Area, which has its own Management Plan, which was recently reviewed and updated. When demolition is proposed within a Conservation Area there is a requirement for the developer to demonstrate that the demolition will add to and not reduce the environmental quality of the Conservation Area. The process for doing this is to prepare a Heritage Statement to support the application. The Heritage Statement should provide the evidence that the demolition will enhance the Conservation Area. The application to demolish the Coventry Cross does not have a Heritage Statement. It does not even have a proper planning application that members of the public can see and there is no written justification for the demolition. If this all sounds unlikely you can check out the plans on the Council’s Planning Portal.

Furthermore it is not normal to support a demolition plan without seeing what will replace the demolished structure. Again there are no plans for what is to replace the Coventry Cross, just a description of making good the pavement surfaces around it. We have been told that the demolition is to make way for a restaurant, a Caribbean fusion restaurant called Turtle Bay. But we have seen no plans about what is proposed, so it is not possible to form a fair assessment as to whether the new facilities will be more attractive than the Coventry Cross. Again this is contrary to the Conservation Area Management Plan.

The proposed relocation site for the monument, for which there is no funding yet available, is on Ironmonger Row, in front of Gregg’s and a multi-coloured student block. Having taken advice from the sculptor involved in the creation of the cross, we do not believe that this is the best location for it. If the Council does go ahead with the relocation, we would like other options to be considered and the public consulted on them.

The person at the heart of these proposals is Councillor Jim O’Boyle, Cabinet Member for Regeneration. Of course Cllr. O’Boyle would have been advised of all these planning requirements if Coventry had a Conservation Officer. Unfortunately, for reasons not known to us, Coventry City Council no longer has a Conservation Officer.

Cllr. O’Boyle has stated that that the allocated budget for relocating the cross is £150,000 and that the Council has obtained that amount from a grant from the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

However on closer examination we find out that the budget is to dismantle the monument, clean up parts of it and put it into storage. We have asked the council for the full cost of replacing the Cross in a different location and they are not able to tell us. It all depends on the state of the structure. However we have been told by a reliable source that the total cost is likely to be in the region of £500,000 and there is no budget for the shortfall of £350,000. Some people might ask whether it is worth spending even £150,000 of public money on a scheme that is purely designed to benefit a single restaurant. Why isn’t the developer paying? If the total cost does come out at the estimated half a million pounds, would Coventry people still see it as value for money?

The Coventry Society supports the City Council’s efforts to regenerate the city centre, but it is not reasonable to expect support for plans that run counter to the Council’s own rules and policies. Approval of the demolition of the cross without meeting the requirements of the Conservation Area Management Plan would set a precedent for other unsuitable developments in the city’s Conservation Areas.

The decision on the future of the monument lies with the Council’s Planning Committee, which is obliged to operate fairly within the adopted rules and policies of the Council and National guidance, so we are hopeful that the matter will be properly and fairly considered.

If you support the campaign to save the Coventry Cross, please sign the petition

https://myaccount.coventry.gov.uk/Petitions?title=Save%20the%20Coventry%20Cross

You can see the “detailed” plans on the Council’s Planning portal, and make comments until 27th September.

Coventry Society Honours Architect / Planner Ralph Butcher

At its meeting on Monday 10th September 2018 the Coventry Society honoured one of its longest serving members, Ralph Butcher.

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Ralph moved to Coventry in 1960 after a spell in the RAF, an Architecture course in Hull and a couple of years at Hull City Council Housing Department. He worked in several sections of the Council’s Departure of Architecture and Planning. Ralph’s initial work in Coventry was advising the planning officers on the design aspects of planning applications (something that doesn’t happen these days). He also worked in the Policy and Landscape sections before taking over the role that he became famous for, leading the Council’s General Improvement Area Team.

In 1968 there had been a national survey of housing conditions, which reported on the very poor state of the country’s older housing. The grants for housing improvement at that time (as now) were spread very thinly and were not having any collective impact. The answer was to create the concept of the General Improvement Area where money and action would be concentrated in improving whole neighbourhoods and the improvement would not only be to the houses but also to the environment in which they stood.

Ralph was given the opportunity of taking this work on in Coventry. He tells us that he offered to do the job for a year but ended up doing it for 20 years which he enjoyed immensely.

Ralph initially worked on his own, liaising with people in other departments to get the grants and land sorted out, but these officers were later brought together under Ralph in the Council’s first inter-departmental team, the GIA Team. The team saw the establishment and completion of the country’s first General Improvement Area (GIA) at Colchester Street / Winchester Street and many more followed. The achievements of this team were very important for Coventry with 14,000 houses improved and 14,000 families given better lives in their own homes and communities instead of being re-housed in modern concrete blocks.

Ralph retired from the Council in 1992.

Ralph joined the Coventry Civic Amenity Society, as we were called in those days, in the 1970s. He took on many roles in the Society, including being a member of the Executive Committee, Treasurer and Membership Secretary. He has stayed a member right up to the present.

As well as the Coventry Society, Ralph was a leading member of a number of city organisations, including the Whitley History Group and the Coventry Building Preservation Trust.

Ralph_Butcher_2

At its September meeting the Coventry Society acknowledged the contribution to the city and the Society made by Ralph and presented him with Life Membership of the Society.

Moving the Cross!

People who read the local press will be aware of the plans of the City Council to move the reconstructed Coventry Cross from its current location next to Holy Trinity Church in order to facilitate a private development.

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There is a current planning application to demolish the Coventry Cross. We have previously written about the Coventry Cross here.

Coventry Cross is located on Cuckoo Lane, outside the garden area of the Slug and Lettuce Public House (formerly the County Hall). It is within the Hill Top Conservation Area.

This modern replica of the historic Coventry Cross was funded by The Coventry Boy Foundation. The idea of a replica had been suggested many years ago in the 1930’s, but it was not until 1971 that discussions and plans were shown to the Coventry Civic Amenities Society (now the Coventry Society) and the Church authorities. It now stands next to Holy Trinity Church, 100 metres way from the original site of the old cross. The completed replica was unveiled in 1976. The figures for the new cross were made by Philip Bentham (of the Coventry Boy statue fame), Wilfred Dudeney and George Ford. George Wagstaffe made the crown and pendants. This modern version is different to the original by being mainly made from cast ferro-concrete, with only some of the statues being carved out of stone. At 17.4 metres (57ft) high the replica Coventry Cross has 20 niches with many figures.

In 2007 it was suggested that replica cross should be moved to Cross Cheaping. But because of local opposition this was not implemented. The idea of relocating it arose again in 2015, but nothing happened because of the cost and difficulty of doing this.It is now reported in the press that there is a proposal to relocate the Cross to nearby Ironmonger Row. However the planning application has been amended so that it now only includes the demolition of the existing cross and not its rebuilding.

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It has been quoted in the press that the City Council is prepared to spend £150,000 to move the cross. However the Coventry Society has researched this figure and established that the cost of £150,000 is the budget for dismantling and cleaning the sculpture and putting it into storage. The Council is currently putting this work out to tender. The City Council has been asked about the total cost of restoring the sculpture and re-erecting it and is not able to answer the question. They say that until the existing cross is dismantled and they have been able to assess the fixing arrangements, existing steel frame and other key elements no final cost can be provided from contractors.However we have heard from a  reliable source that the total cost is likely to be in the region of £500,000, leaving a shortfall of around £350,000. 

“The Council’s view is that the removal and relocation of Coventry Cross is an important project for the city. Our ambition is to relocate the cross nearer to the location of the original Coventry Cross and the relocation will also improve the context and setting of the medieval core of the City for residents, visitors and local businesses.”

We have asked sculptor George Wagstaffe, who was involved in the original design of the replica, for his opinion about relocating the cross. Whilst not totally against such a move, he pointed out the appearance and materials of the cross were more appropriate to its current location than the proposed one. He said that the surroundings of the proposed location on Ironmonger Row was more like a Mondrian painting than a suitable environment for a medieval stone cross.

The Coventry Society is not opposed to the City Council’s plans to improve Cuckoo Lane. However we do not want to see another of Coventry’s Public Art works put into storage, probably never to to be seen again. We also question why the Public Sector is being asked to pay for a relocation which only appears to benefit one business. How much is that business putting into the pot? Where is the budget for the reconstruction of the sculpture to come from? If the sculpture is to be relocated, where is the best location to put it? We feel that the demolition should not go ahead until these important questions are answered.

We also point out that there is a Conservation Area Management Plan which covers the demolition of structures in a Conservation Area and we would like to hear the Council’s justification for the demolition, which we have yet to see. We feel that the absence of a City Council Conservation Officer is leaving the Council without good advice on conservation matters.

We are pleased to note that the planning application has been referred to the Secretary of State and we hope that a sensible decision will be made.

What do you think? Should the Cross remain? Should it be moved? If so, where to? Would the available budget be better spent on improving the sculpture in its current location, e.g with gold leaf etc. to make it more like the original?