Jamie Coath 28 June 2019

The future of town halls

Too often, town halls are off-limits to the community - or at least perceived as such. They are neither sources of income for the council nor places that improve cultural life or community health and wellbeing. But town halls can be restored and reconfigured to unlock their potential to deliver social value and revenue for the council.

They are usually one of the area’s most beautiful and characterful buildings and typically offer spacious premises that be used to host anything from start-up businesses to art exhibitions, or large civic events. Often the town hall is in a strategic, central and well-connected location, the heart of the town or city that they serve. Crucially, they are a key part of the town’s cultural history as well as a locally-loved landmark and are consequently often of very high heritage significance.

Unlocking potential

The challenge is that town halls tend be large, old buildings that have become difficult to maintain and run, and which no longer meet modern standards and expectations – for example in sustainable energy use and accessibility. Faced with this, cash-strapped councils may not feel an extensive overhaul of the town hall is feasible or even desirable. The benefit that can be derived from preserving or enhancing the heritage value is perceived to be outweighed by the pragmatic operational challenges.

However, councils can harness the potential of the town hall with a well-thought-out strategy to restore, modernise and adapt. This should start with an assessment of the intrinsic heritage value (what is historically significant and why, or what is cherished by the local community) and a detailed analysis of the challenges (physical condition, operational barriers, changing functional requirements).

The next step is to develop a set of clear objectives that a redevelopment or restoration project should achieve – in short, the ‘vision’ - and an appraisal of the options available to achieve the objectives, including the costs. A funding and implementation strategy can then be prepared. This may include expertly produced bids for funding from external sources and a careful procurement strategy as well as a long-term regular revenue generation strategy.

Based on this foundation, works to preserve the building and to showcase its history and heritage can go ahead. At the same time, you can improve the building with sensitive adaptations to ensure that it reclaims its place as the hub of the modern community and makes a strong contribution to local quality of life and prosperity.

Manchester Town Hall

Purcell is putting this approach into practice at a growing number of town halls. At Manchester Town Hall, we are involved in Manchester City Council’s £330m project to restore and repair the highly complex 1870s building - a gothic revival masterpiece - and rejuvenate the adjacent public square. Excitingly, the ‘Our Town Hall’ project will also return the building to the cultural heart of Manchester as a flagship destination.

The process of research, design and construction can also be used to benefit local people. The seven-year Manchester Town Hall project involves training the local workforce in heritage skills, including creating apprenticeships, and sharing learnings with local charities and the university. The project is particularly well suited to this because of the building’s scale, Grade 1 listed status and complexity as a functional town hall in one of the country’s largest cities.

The Our Town Hall project brief was initially established by Manchester City Council based upon detailed analysis and research and defines eight project objectives:

1. To secure the long-term future of the Manchester Town Hall, its civic role and its external setting.
2. To retain and enhance as a functioning and efficient town hall.
3. Restore and celebrate this significant heritage asset for Manchester.
4. To enhance the use of the building, as a visitor destination and increase access to Mancunians.
5. To transform users’ and visitors’ experiences.
6. To reduce carbon footprint and energy costs.
7. To maximise commercial opportunities and offset costs to the public purse.
8. To deliver economic and social value for Manchester.

Here at Purcell we have developed a detailed framework for Our Town Hall to reinstate the building, including its vast collection of valuable objects, and the square as the civic heart of the city. This is based upon protecting and enhancing the internationally important heritage significance of the site and the iconic sense of place it has in the collective memory of the local community. This is embodied in the special heritage values Purcell has defined and the capacity for change we have identified.

The architectural approach allows for minimum intervention while still carrying out crucial repairs or upgrades. This ensures that the enhancement of the building’s fabric is proportionate to the significance of the space and allows maximum retention of the building, and consequently the smallest possible loss of material of cultural heritage value. Plans also include upgrading the building’s services (electricity and plumbing etc), improving room utilisation and enhancing user welfare facilities.

The project will mainly be funded with a long-term loan but grant funding is being sought from the National Lottery Heritage Fund for particular elements such as the Visitor centre Exhibition and the Organ restoration.

Balancing act

The main challenge for Purcell, as architects, on the Our Town Hall project is balancing the alterations necessary for providing fully inclusive access to the building, and up-to-date operational facilities for the civic and event functions needed for a viable and efficient town hall in the 21st century, with the heritage of a Grade 1 listed building. This involves the careful and sensitive integration of lifts, catering provision, efficient environmental strategies, upgraded servicing and working conditions, essential security requirements and a welcoming and successful visitor offer. This must be accompanied by a detailed and clear analysis of which areas are to be refurbished and which are to be restored.

All these challenges were tackled successfully at St George’s Hall in Liverpool, another Grade 1 listed civic building which had fallen on hard times. This site was revitalised, with its potential unlocked by the extensive restoration we have undertaken in the last decade. Here, a Trust was formed and substantial grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources secured a sustainable future for a building that two decades before had been threatened with demolition.

The magnificent building was transformed by the careful adaption or restoration of redundant or disused areas and the sensitive integration of new facilities, access requirements and services. An example is the reinstatement and full restoration of the Small Concert Room at the North end of the site. This beautiful neoclassical masterpiece had been closed for decades due to a means of escape issue. Purcell reconfigured the existing cantilevered stone staircases and seamlessly extended them to newly formed exit routes, enabling the room to be reopened to the public as the centrepiece for the European Capital of Culture celebrations in 2008.

This site had always been the cultural hub for the people of Liverpool and the civic centre for the city council in the past. Now it is fully functioning and is far more accessible, and relevant to the council and people, thanks to the grant funding secured by a well-considered master plan and conservation management plan.

Small changes, big impact

However small changes can also provide large benefits. At Macclesfield Town Hall and Crewe Municipal Building Purcell’s modest interventions – adding lifts to improve accessibility and reconfiguring the interior - helped reinvigorate the use of two civic buildings for the newly formed Cheshire East Council.

The restoration and renewal of a town hall can have powerful effect on the town or city. Take the Southern Welsh town of Maesteg, a former coal mining community which has been suffering in terms of its economy and sense of identity, since the closure of its last local pit in 1985.

Maesteg’s Town Hall is a beautiful 19th century building in the heart of town whose current functions include hosting theatre and performance art. A survey found that the community liked the building but felt that it could serve them better and in particular it could be more flexible in order to host a greater range of events. Purcell is now working on a scheme to repair and restore the building, add a new public library, public foyer and studio theatre. We feel that this project as much about helping Maesteg to find its way again, as it is the repair of bricks and mortar.

The potential of town hall buildings to work harder for communities and councils, and to reclaim their place at the heart of the town, is huge. With the right advice, funding and design solutions, minor or more extensive interventions can have a transformative effect.

Jamie Coath is partner at Purcell

This feature first appeared in Public Property magazine. Email l.sharman@hgluk.com to register for your free quarterly copy.

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