Twentieth Century Society Comments on the Plans for the Upper Precinct

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You cannot read the comments made on the Council’s Planning Portal in relation to the Listed Building application to re-shape the Upper Precinct. As a service to Coventry Citizens we reproduce below, with their permission, the comments made about the application by the Twentieth Century Society.

18 September 2018

Dear Liam D’Onofrio,

LB/2018/2494 Upper Precinct Smithford Way Coventry CV1 1QS

The Twentieth Century Society has been notified of the above application. The application seeks listed building consent for alterations to the Grade II listed Upper Precinct. The Society wishes to object to the above application and our comments are set out below.

We were previously consulted on these proposals prior to the listing of the affected buildings, and our comments here closely reflect those submitted on 30 November 2017. We are disappointed to see that the scheme has undergone minimal revision in light of the newly listed status of the buildings occupying the site. Our support remains for the removal of the 1993 escalator and glass housing attached to the North Link block, and we are pleased to see that these unsympathetic additions have been identified as such by the applicants. We do, however, have significant concerns about the harm other proposed alterations will have on the historic interest of several Grade II listed buildings.

The Upper Precinct was the centrepiece of public amenity space laid out in Donald Gibson’s plans for the immediate post-war rebuilding scheme in Coventry City Centre. The shopping precinct connects Broadgate to Smithford Way and Market Way, and is arranged in an axial plan of low-rise blocks sharing a Scandinavian inspired architectural vocabulary. Views of the Cathedral to the west have been partially blocked by the Cathedral Lanes Shopping Centre, however the East-West orientation running through the post-war city centre planning is still clearly legible. The Gibson plan for the rebuilding of Coventry city centre is an early example of mid-century town planning, and the Upper Precinct is the earliest scheme built following his vision for the city. The Upper Precinct is a complete, well-executed and high quality scheme that shares a common architectural vocabulary across a group of privately-designed buildings, with the provision of good public space as a leading priority. The success and importance of the Upper Precinct is reflected in its listing at Grade II. The Society considers the shared scale and detail of the contingent buildings of the Upper Precinct to be highly important. As stated in its listing description, the Upper Precinct provides a clear assertion of “the spirit of the vibrant and re-born city of Coventry”, and the group serves as a strong reminder of the extent of damage suffered during the Second World War.

Public access and circulation

The reconfiguration of access around Coventry city centre, focusing on the separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, was a key aspect of Gibson’s plan. The Upper Precinct is fully pedestrianised and incorporates many features that provide clear wayfinding and a pleasant shopping environment. The Upper Precinct was always intended to have shops on two storeys, with a square walkway at first floor to connect the upper floor of shops. The original stairs to access the upper tier walkway have been removed and were replaced by a brick ramp from Broadgate in 1979, and an additional escalator added to the North Link block, providing access into the later West Orchards Shopping Centre. The Society recognises that the removal of the 1983 escalator will be a positive change, and will enhance the significance of the listed building. The removal of the ramp has the potential to open up views through the Upper Precinct to the Cathedral, however we are concerned that this access has not been provided elsewhere and will have an adverse effect on the circulation around the upper tier. The removal of the bridges between the North and South link blocks will also remove a key feature of the original layout of the Upper Precinct. Whilst the fabric of the original walkways is not original, the circulation pattern remains true to the original design, and so the truncating of the walkways as proposed will result in harm to the architectural significance of the listed building. The Society cannot see that any justification has been given for the loss of the walkway bridges, as this will reduce access and footfall to the first floor shops, and will remove the possibility of raised views towards the Cathedral and the Upper Precinct axis. We recommend that more prominent access stairs and linking walkway bridges be incorporated to facilitate easy public access, maintaining the original design intent.

The Society supports the replacement of the 1993 railings to the walkways with a more sympathetic design. We consider the proposed entrance archway to the West Orchards Shopping Centre to be unsympathetic to the minimal decorative detailing of the original buildings, and this should be reduced in scale and prominence to not overwhelm the listed buildings. We also consider the later landscaping and paving alterations to be unsympathetic to the original design, and we hope the opportunity to rectify this is taken in a revision of these proposals.

Glazing in of North link block colonnade

The covered areas of the public realm are a key feature of the Upper Precinct as a public amenity, and the Society is opposed to their removal. The infill of the colonnade areas is an infringement on the public space that was at the centre of Gibson’s design, and will damage the intended quality and practicality of the space. Symmetry is a clear principle of the original design, and the proposed infilling of the North link block colonnade will dramatically harm the sense of symmetry across the whole scheme, especially with the clear views through the Precinct following removal of the 1979 access ramp. Our previous comments stated that this aspect of the proposals was unacceptable in heritage terms, and we are extremely disappointed that this has not been revised to reflect the level of protection afforded by listed status.

The newly opened space at the Broadgate end of the Upper Precinct will increase the level of daylight reaching the shopfronts, and so this issue will be less prevalent. A projecting first floor is a shared design feature across many of the 1950s buildings in Coventry, including the former Co-Operative store in Corporation Street (G S HAY, 1954-6), and is a clear example of the influence of Corbusian principles in Gibson’s vision for the city centre. The underlying quality of the original design is still clear despite later unsympathetic additions, and we are optimistic that these proposals can be revised in a respectful manner.

M&S and BHS canopy removal

The Society is also opposed to the removal of the canopies to M&S and BHS, as these are important period features that create a strong visual link across the axis of the Upper Precinct, Lower Precinct, Market Way and Smithford Way, and will harm the quality of the public space that was integral to Gibson’s plan. The argument for maximising visibility of retail space is considered to be insufficient justification to justify the harm proposed to the listed building. The M&S canopy is pierced with glass lights to allow daylight to reach the pavement and mark the building’s main entrance, and this could be reinstated in the BHS canopy to enhance the building’s architectural significance.

Façade alterations

Our previous comments stated that the proposed alterations to shopfronts and new glazing throughout the scheme would entirely change the nature of the buildings, and these proposals have not been reconsidered since the buildings were listed. The proposed alterations to the Upper Precinct and Market Way facades of the former BHS store are in no way sympathetic to the original features of the listed building. The building’s list description states that “the building has clear interest for the sophisticated design of its facades, with elegant detailing and good quality materials” and the Society considers the current proposals will cause substantial harm to these elements. Subtle features including spandrel panels, glazing pattern with projecting surrounds, and muted palette of materials are shared across the Upper Precinct, and this applications proposes the first major alteration to the external facades of the group of listed buildings. We do not consider the potential benefits resulting from the proposals to meet the criteria justifying harm to a listed building as set out in the NPPF (paragraph 194):

Any harm to, or loss of, the significance of a designated heritage asset (from its alteration or destruction, or from development within its setting), should require clear and convincing justification.

Substantial harm to or loss of:

a) grade II listed buildings, or grade II registered parks or gardens, should be exceptional;

Our previous comments expressed opposition to the proposed insertion of a framed corner window to the former Leofric Hotel, now Mercia House. Again, this harmful proposal has not reconsidered in the revision of the scheme. There is no precedent for this style of window in any of the original buildings, and it is entirely inconsistent with the symmetrical layout of glazing and decorative features currently carried across the Upper Precinct. We are greatly disappointed that these proposals show general disregard for the dictating symmetry shared across the whole of the Upper Precinct. This shows a clear lack of attention paid to the fundamental design elements that link the individual buildings together, and ignores the elements that reveal the influence of Gibson’s plan on the composition of this small group of buildings.

Comments

The Society is pleased to see that investment in Coventry’s post-war buildings and spaces is being prioritised, however we fundamentally disagree with the approach of this application. It is unacceptable that these harmful proposals have not been drastically revised following the listing of all of the buildings on the site. As an organisation with expertise in twentieth century architecture, we are disappointed that our previous advice has been ignored by the applicant. We hope that these proposals are reconsidered in favour of a conservation-led approach, dictated by a respect for the buildings’ architectural significance and the importance of the civic character of the original composition. The Society considers this to be an opportunity to revive the vitality and refinement of the Upper Precinct, however we have no choice but to object to the proposals in their current form.

I trust that these comments are of use to you. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further queries.

Yours sincerely,

 

Grace Etherington

Caseworker

Twentieth Century Society

Follow this link to see the full Listed Building Application on the Council’s Planning Portal

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

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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.

Ralph_Butcher_1

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.