Without informing councillors, Shropshire Council has applied for a certificate of immunity to protect its Shirehall headquarters from being listed. Councillors only heard about this yesterday. The consultation by Historic England ends on Friday.
Council leader Peter Nutting has said the decision to apply for a certificate of immunity is not controversial as the council decision in July on the future of Shirehall was quite clear. But councillors did not agree to demolish Shirehall. They agreed to stop work on the ambitious and expensive plans to remodel Shirehall and explore developing a new civic centre in Shrewsbury town centre. Demolition was not discussed.
The secret move to get a certificate of immunity is typical of the current council leadership’s approach. Councillors are informed on a need to know basis and, in Peter Nutting’s opinion, most councillors don’t need to know.
It is obvious why the council has kept its applicated for a certificate of immunity a secret. It does not want those concerned about heritage, especially twentieth century heritage, to object to the application. It would not have applied for a certificate of immunity if it had not received advice that the building is a potential candidate for listing.
It also wants to work behind closed doors because open debate gets in the way of the increasingly presidential style of Shropshire Council’s leaders.
Shropshire Council agreed on 16 July to stop work on the plans for refurbishing Shirehall while continuing with essential maintenance. It agreed to explore plans for a new Civic Centre in Shrewsbury to house council employees and others. Councillors did not agree to demolish Shirehall.
Nevertheless, the council acted quickly to proceed with its plans to demolish the building, or to allow a future owner to demolish it. An application for a certificate of immunity was submitted on 16 July, the same day as the council meeting. Councillors have yet to be sent this by the council but Historic England has provided a copy (below). Historic England visited the building on 31 July and compiled a report. The consultation on granting a certificate of immunity began on 7 August. It closes this Friday, 28 August (email: Rachel.Williams@HistoricEngland.org.uk). Historic England sent the consultation the owners of the building (Shropshire Council), the conservation/planning department of the local authority (Shropshire Council) and the Historic Environment Record (Shropshire Council). The Twentieth Century Society has also been consulted. The rest of us got to know of the consultation by accident.
In 1967, the Architect’s Journal published an article on the new Shirehall. Designed by Salop County Architect Ralph Crowe, the article records that Shirehall was built at a cost of £1,496,874. Converted to 2020 prices, that’s £27.3 million.
Pevsner’s Buildings of England, Shropshire has an appreciative write up for the building:
Shire Hall, Abbey Foregate, 1963-6, by Ralph Crowe, the County Architect. The major monument to post-war Modernism in the county. Far-spreading irregular cruciform plan on falling ground. In the centre towards the Portland ashlar-faced council chamber, a truncated ovoid raised up on stout complex pivots. Square surrounding canopy in thin metal piers. The forecourt within the canopy and beneath the council chamber is a remarkable space, partly top-lit and with distant glimpses distant glimpses of the town below to the w. Six-storey office block behind, a long narrow slab with windows in continuous bands, the wall surfaces clad in grey-green mosaic. The then newly completed Plymouth Civic Centre was acknowledged as the principal influence on the Shire Hall.
Plymouth Civic Centre in Armada Way is Grade II Listed. Plans are in place to create 144 homes in the 14-floor building, with a mix of uses for the ground and first floors including shops, offices, cafes and restaurants, bars, hot food takeaway, art gallery, gym, creche and day nursery.
That approach would make for sense for Shirehall. But Peter Nutting is unlikely to be keen on this. It would divert attention and footfall from his treasured shopping centres in the middle of town.
Shropshire Council is as usual behind the times on climate change. The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors estimates that 35% of the lifecycle carbon from a typical office development is emitted before the building opens. It says it is more carbon efficient to refurbish old buildings. Peter Nutting told BBC Radio Shropshire this morning that is “far more better for the environment if the building was demolished.” We haven’t seen the evidence for that.
Shirehall is not a good building to work in. It has suffered from long term lack of maintenance by Shropshire Council and its predecessor Shropshire County Council. But that does not mean that it should be demolished. There is a case for listing the building and that should be openly debated. The council is wrong to try and block that debate by applying in secret for a certificate of immunity.
Listen to council leader Peter Nutting talking to Eric Smith on BBC Radio Shropshire.
Shropshire Council’s application for a certificate of immunity
Shropshire Council has yet to supply councillors with a copy of its application for a certificate of immunity from listing. Fortunately, Historic England is nimbler on its feet and responded to an FoI request within 24 hours. Some details are redacted:
Application from Shropshire Council (redacted).
My comments to Historic England on the application
Objection to application for a Certificate of Immunity from listing for Shirehall, Shrewsbury
HE Reference Number: 1471540
The context for the COI application is a discussion on a new, smaller home for Shropshire Council that might be more central within Shrewsbury. However, councillors have not agreed to demolish Shirehall. On 16 July, the day the application for COI was submitted to HE, councillors agreed to stop work on the ambitious and expensive plans to remodel Shirehall and explore developing a new civic centre in Shrewsbury town centre. Demolition was not discussed by councillors.
This process means that there has been no debate on the merits of retaining or listing Shirehall. Yet the building has a notable place in Shropshire’s civic and architectural history.
Built adjacent to the Grade II* listed Lord Hill’s Column, Shirehall stands at the head of Abbey Foregate, a symbolic location aside a road linking two of Shrewsbury’s significant landmarks. Designed by County Architect Ralph Crowe, Shirehall was built in 1963 and 1966 in a style openly acknowledge as influenced by the Grade II listed Plymouth Civic Centre. Pevsner describes Shirehall as: “The major monument to post-war Modernism in the county”. Describing the building as Crowe’s magnum opus and a “serious work of Modernism”, Pevsner adds: “The most imaginative stroke is the siting on the ovoid, ashlar-faced council chamber on pilotis at the front of the building”.
The design of Shirehall is subservient to Lord Hill’s Column, set back, horizontal rather than towering. It is separated from the Column by a broad area that both protects the setting of the Column and provides public open space. The postmodern Magistrate’s Courts building are constructed with distinctively different brick, ensuring that they do not detract from the main architecture of Shirehall.
The fabric of Shirehall has been modified but not greatly for a building of its age. It has been neglected by its owners, Shropshire Council and its predecessor Shropshire County Council. But it is not in a dangerous state. It still capable of hosting offices and mixed uses. Like its role model, Plymouth Civic Centre, it could also accommodate housing. That would preserve heritage and reduce the high carbon emissions associated with new build.
The case for listing Shirehall needs to be debated. That’s why I oppose a COI which would sterilise the listing process should a listing application be desired for this important civic building.
Shropshire Councillor for Ludlow North