Caution is still the policy, post-Covid-19, with this lovely public space

4 minute read

The Rates Hall from 1938 in the Town Hall Extension is one of the best civic chambers in the country as our main picture on this page shows. 

The curve of the space as it enfolds Central Library, the use of polychromatic marbles, the lofty doors, the exceptional light fittings, the splendid coats of arms of Manchester and Lancashire, the light casting shadows from tall windows, the repeated pattern of arches on each side impresses the viewer with its power but also its feeling of ‘rightness’. 

If you are designing a space to reflect civic authority, dignity and duty you can’t do better than this: a room full of symbolism, a representation of the bigger idea, of a shared identity for well-off and not so well-off, a common purpose.

The timescale for its continued use as Covid-19 vaccination centre is under review

The architect of the Town Hall Extension was Vincent Harris who also designed Manchester Central Library next door. The SimpsonHaugh refurbishment completed in 2013 revealed the Rates Hall in all its glory. True, the long curving desk had disappeared, but that had already gone by the time of the refurb. 

Between 2013 and March 2020 visitors to the city and residents as well were ‘wowed’ by this simply gorgeous and grand space, which also constituted a handy yet splendid and publicly accessible stroll between St Peter’s Square and Mount Street. 

Rates Hall
The Rates Hall as it appeared in 1938 when the building was completed Image: Confidentials
Rates Hall And Link Building 10
The Rates Hall in its restored glory in 2013 Image: Confidentials

Then the pandemic hit and the Rates Hall went onto a wartime footing. It slipped into that now-familiar yet still scarily dystopian vision of a room, with wash-down sheeting on walls and floors and a population of medical folk in gowns, gloves and masks. It became central Manchester’s vaccine HQ because somewhere had to and the Rates Hall had plenty of space and the right location. 

Less necessary was the legion of tin foil hat conspiracy theorists protesting at the door while attempting to terrorise people visiting for the vax. These delusionists were good at vandalising the Grade II listed Town Hall Extension plastering the St Peter's Square entrance with inane post-it style notes.  

Conspiracy Theorists Slap Stickers On The Town Hall Extension
The Town Hall Extension under attack from conspiracy theorists' glorified post-it notes Image: Confidentials

So, with the vaccination programme a success and people living as normal a life as possible, albeit facing the triple whammy of industrial disputes, a dead government walking and the cost of living crisis, can we have our Rates Hall back? This is a question we’ve been asked several times at and also by guests to the city.

Well, the answer is not yet.

A Manchester City Council spokesperson said: "The Rates Hall has been used through the global pandemic as a Covid-19 vaccination centre that has allowed people living and working in the city centre to get a jab easily in a centralised location. The site remains operational and the timescale for its continued use as Covid-19 vaccination centre is under review, after which the Rates Hall will reopen to the public."

Rates Hall And Link Building 6
The best Manchester coat of arms is to be found in the Rates Hall Image: Confidentials

Fair enough, given all those NHS problems, the news of excess deaths and the industrial disputes. Discretion is perhaps the better part of valour in this case. Given all the mayhem and death Covid-19 delivered it seems a little thing to have access to the Rates Hall denied at present. (On the q.t, Confidentials hears it will be March before any reopening may happen, but shush).  

We can wait. 

Rates Hall And Link Building 5
Closed and locked: emergency measures in the Library Walk link building Image: Confidentials

When it does become public again it will help to justify the £3.5m spent in 2015 on the massively controversial Library Walk link building between the Town Hall Extension and Central Library. 

The small but expensive structure with its attendant works (ramps, gates) was, as the City Council put it, intended ‘to make movement (between the Town Hall Extension and Central Library) as quick and simple as possible’ and ‘is essential to enable direct, easy flow between the two buildings.’ There was also a spurious excuse given for its construction on the grounds of preventing anti-social behaviour. 

Covib-19 broke the movement between the two buildings when the Rates Hall closed to the public. There is no easy flow anymore. Admittedly our comments here display some sour grapes as we were among the campaigners trying to prevent that £3.5m being spent on what many in the city thought was a needless structure ruining one of the most impressive thoroughfares in the city, Library Walk. The fact the Town Hall Extension and Central Library were already, and remain, linked at basement level via lifts underscored the expensive redundancy of the link building.

Anyway, enough, we'll stop going on with ourselves. That's all moot, the battle was lost. 

At least we got that superb refurbishment of the Rates Hall. Of course, while public health concerns remain high local and national government will play it safe. Aesthetic and tourist considerations must remain on the backburner. You might say the Rates Hall remains a representation of the bigger idea, of a common purpose.

The good news is, and let's hold the City Council to this, we'll get our beautiful Rates Hall back - just not yet. 

Read next: Short history of Manchester: Britons, Romans, Saxons

Read again: What to expect in Manchester food and drink 2023

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