Plan to protect Norwich’s finest buildings may involve selling off historic properties
14:23 09 April 2014
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A strategy to repair, invest in, or sell off, more than 370 of Norwich’s historic buildings has been rubber-stamped by their owner – Norwich City Council.
The Heritage Investment Strategy has been put together so that funding can be found to maintain some of the 376 heritage properties which the council owns, such as Norwich Castle and St Andrew’s and Blackfriars Hall.
However, the strategy’s aim is to also reduce how much the council may have to pay out in repairs for these buildings in the coming years and acknowledges that some of the less important properties may have to be sold at some point in the future.
While no decisions have been taken on what could be sold off, the strategy does separate the assets into two classes, with the 118 that are most important to the city being identified as “stewardship properties”, which would only be sold in special circumstances.
However, concerns have been raised that the strategy gives the green light for the remaining 258 buildings to be sold off.
10 priority projects
In the strategy, the council has outlined 10 projects to be treated as a priority, either due to deadlines for funding opportunities or because there are urgent problems to address.
1) Castle Gardens and Lodges The lodges are unused and in need of repair, and there is also a need for the restoration and enhancement of the Victorian gardens.
2) Chapelfield Gardens Works to improve entrances, lighting and paths.
3) Magpie Printers site and City Walls The site became vacant following the demolition of the former Magpie Printer’s building. The medieval city walls have been repaired and there are now plans to landscape the area in front of the walls facing Magpie road.
4) Ninhams Court, Bethel Street This grade II* listed house was gifted to the council and as such must remain in its ownership. It has been empty for a number of years. The council has been developing a scheme with a building preservation trust, which may take on a lease and carry out repairs for use as a holiday home.
5) St Andrews and Blackfriars Halls Owned by the council since the dissolution of the monasteries. It is expensive to maintain, with a backlog in the repairs programme. A feasibility study is needed to establish the role of the halls in the future, the extent of repairs required and potential future projects to improve the effectiveness and appearance of the halls.
6) War Memorial Gardens undercroft This grade II listed structure was recently repaired but the undercroft remains empty and only occasionally used.
It has potential to provide an arts facility in the city centre.
7) Tombland Toilets The concrete underground toilets were closed in April 2012 due to anti-social behaviour, poor access and the cost of keeping them open. The council would like to see this unattractive feature removed.
8) Mile Cross Gardens and pavilions Improvements are required as it is currently on the Heritage at Risk Register. The park and its pavilions are underused and some of the historic structures are damaged.
9) Mousehold Heath Funding has been awarded by Natural England to the Mousehold Conservators for the heath and one of the main aims is the restoration of the heathland.
10) Waterloo Park Pavilion Currently empty and there have been problems with a leaking roof. It has the potential to be used as a social space for weddings and other gatherings, but there is a lack of adequate car parking. A business case is being developed to repair and upgrade the facilities associated with promotion of the pavilion for suitable events and additional car parking.
Council leaders maintain there are enough safeguards in place so there would be proper scrutiny of any sales of these heritage assets, which include Anglia House (formerly Agricultural Hall), The Waterfront music venue, New Mills Yard pumping station and many rented homes, such as those in Elm Hill.
The strategy says: “Despite its relatively tightly drawn boundaries, the council owns more than 195 listed buildings and scheduled monuments, plus numerous locally listed buildings and nine registered parks and gardens. The properties range from high status buildings such as the castle, museums and churches, to Georgian town houses, council housing, statues and bridges. This impressive portfolio is of great benefit to the city, but a financial liability to the council.”
Norwich City Council says the strategy, which it hopes to have in place by March 2015, is needed to help it secure funding to maintain historic buildings.
But its main aim is to reduce how much the council may have to pay out in repairs for these buildings in the coming years.
By March 2018, the council wants to have thorough condition surveys in place for every listed building and scheduled monument, which will then be updated every five years.
The strategy says: “The sale of some heritage assets can bring benefits to the council in terms of income generation and a reduced longer-term maintenance and repair liability, as well as bringing benefits to the assets themselves. Funds raised through asset sales improve the financial position of the council and thus increase the ability to invest in the remaining assets.”
The strategy was originally approved by the council’s cabinet at the end of March, however, several councillors asked for it to go before the scrutiny committee as they had concerns over how consultation with partner organisations such as the Norwich Society and the Norwich Historic Churches Trust had been handled.
One of those councillors, the Green Party’s Lucy Galvin, said that while the strategy was “excellent in most parts” she feared there were not adequate checks and balances in place for the future – for example if one day gung-ho officers decided to hold a fire sale of heritage.
At a meeting last night, the committee was told how the sale of heritage buildings not listed as stewardship properties would be subject to the same checks and balances as when the council wants to dispose of its other assets.
Brenda Arthur, leader of the council, said: “This document does not give cabinet the licence to sell off any heritage property.”
She added that councillors would still be informed if an asset was proposed to be sold, and there were measures that could be taken to delay any sale, such as applying to get a building registered as an asset of community value.
Vicky Manthorpe, of the Norwich Society, told the meeting she welcomed the strategy and the chance to be consulted as a stakeholder, but was concerned the organisation did not receive a final copy of the document they had helped to shape before it was approved and adopted by the council.
She said: “We were particularly concerned about the clear definition of criteria of non-stewardship and stewardship properties and would have like to have been involved in the process of nominations.” The scrutiny committee voted not to refer the strategy back to the cabinet and instead decided to make some recommendations for future learning.