In 2007, when this Grade 2 listed building was placed into the UK's top ten most endangered buildings, a group of seriously concerned citizens set up the Friends of the Old Town Hall. They have done a lot of work, working in partnership with Sheffield City Council, The Heritage Lottery Fund, the Architectural Heritage Fund, and local organisations.
The task ahead is enormous. The cost of repair following a condition survey and viability assessment is put at around £10million.
In recent weeks there was movement at the Old Town Hall. People unknown to the SCC arrived and entered the building, apparently to install further measures to secure the building. It is believed the owners have appointed an architect to look at the building for residential use which is surprising as the study commissioned by the Friends of the Old Town Hall found this not to be a viable option.
You may wonder why the council hasn't used its authority to serve an Urgent Works Notice or Compulsory Purchase powers. My understanding, outside of the presentation, from reading 'Stopping the Rot, a guide to enforcement action to save historic buildings' by English Heritage, is that the force of legislation and precedent cases is strongly supportive of a Local Authority (LA) taking action. I would appreciate an authority from Historic England clarifying for me what appears, from my inexpert view, to be somewhat contradictory in their text. Firstly that, 'urgent works' are not to be proactive or preventative. They are constrained to mending damage already happening:
'The works included should be those urgently necessary at the time and should not include precautionary or preventive work that may become necessary in the future.' (5.3)
'Preventing deterioration and damage from getting worse. When there is evidence of a condition which is already causing deterioration and, if left unchecked, will continue to do so, then immediate action is required to prevent further deterioration, the further diminution of the building’s special architectural or historic interest, and higher repair costs. It is implicit in the legislation and guidance that urgent works provisions will apply to buildings in an advanced state of decay, requiring temporary support (eg scaffolding or propping) or shelter (eg a temporary roof).' (5.5)
'The objective of an Urgent Works Notice is:
to preserve what is there
to prevent it from getting worse
to do so in the most cost-effective way'
And the text goes on to outline specific actions like roof and gutter works and the practicalities of servicing a notice to untraceable owners. But it seems that the problem - of our council being inactive to Stop the Rot - lies in their trepidation around recovering expenses, which the law entitles them to do. Understandably so. From the document again:
'In some cases, the local authority may decide it is inappropriate or impractical to recover the costs because, for instance, the owner is overseas, bankrupt, a charitable body or unknown.' (5.16)
We know that the owners GI Properties are unknown, incommunicative and untraceable (and why would central government sell to them in the first instance?).
However, in this time of LAs having been stripped of so much of their income sources isn't there a case for the Secretary of State or for English Heritage to outlay the cost of urgent works and which they then should recover? Another quote:
'Section 55(1) of the Listed Buildings Act1990 allows a local authority (or the Secretary of State or English Heritage, as the case may be) that has incurred expenditure under section 54 in carrying out urgently necessary works for the preservation of a listed building to seek to recover their expenses from the building owner' (5.16)