In part three of her NQ investigation, Andrea Sandor asks what is the point of conservation areas?
This past few months I've been investigating changes in the Northern Quarter, including the organisations being pushed out by market forces and those staying put and moving in.
In this article I want to focus on conservation, following Hayley Flynn’s excellent report on the farcical development consultation by Salboy - the property development company owned by billionaire bookmaker Fred Done.
For years, the Smithfield Conservation Area has slowly been eroded, frameworks and guidelines are ignored and residents have no real power. The latest instalment in the Northern Quarter development saga is the demolition of an 1870s warehouse straddling Back Turner Street and Soap Street. The emergency order for next-day demolition coincided with Salboy's public consultation on developing the plot.
Its bleakness evokes fascist parades and firing squads, not picnic lunches
I arrived at the consultation just after news of the demolition had come to light.
“You cannot tell me it’s beyond the wit of man to save that building,” Tony Cross, resident and Northern Quarter Forum member, argued forcefully to a tense group of Salboy representatives and concerned residents.
“Of course it’s not beyond the wit of man!” the Salboy reps retorted.
It seems it was - the building’s now gone.
A combination of economic policy and ideology has outstripped wit. New builds are cheaper than restorations, building big is more profitable than restoring small, and ideologically, woe betide the Brit who builds anything “pastiche”.
After repeated questioning from Cross, Salboy director Simon Ismail admitted no feasibility study to save the building had ever been done. Not only did Salboy never intend to retain the building, they also felt confident they’d get permission to knock it down. Moreover, Ismail suggested it was residents’ responsibility to save the building. So much for conservation.
It’s not only the demolition of old buildings that’s at stake, new ones aren’t in keeping with the area either. As Flynn writes, the plot lies within the Smithfield Conservation Area, but no one’s enforcing its conservation.
According to the City Council’s website, development within the Smithfield area “is about fitting into an established street pattern with the scale of development proportions and materials of major concern.” Development should enhance the prosperity of the area while paying attention to “special architectural and visual qualities.”
But both the Crowne Plaza and the Holiday Inn Express were given planning permission within the conservation area - and neither fit in architecturally.
The Crowne Plaza set the precedent in 2008, a forgettable thirteen-story block structure with dismal yellow and burgundy glass panes. The Holiday Inn swiftly followed.
Historic England were consulted during the application for the Holiday Inn and expressed concerns about the building’s height. However, they didn’t mind its aluminium cladding panels and white and yellow glazing - so much for materials being of “major concern”.
The 2009 Planning Committee report recommending the Holiday Inn application makes for amusing reading, in a depressing sort of way. It claims the hotel would “enhance views along High Street”, its public realm would “fully integrate into the area and would not detract from its character” and the square would provide an “important element of social amenity and spatial relief in the City Centre.”
The truth is, residents have lost faith in the Council...
Not only is the hotel an eyesore, anyone who lives or works in the area will tell you it’s the opening of the Mackie Mayor - a Grade II listed building - that’s attracted people to this corner of the Northern Quarter, not the hotel’s desolate square. Today people hurry through the square to get to Mackie Mayor, but no one spends time in it. Its bleakness evokes fascist parades and firing squads, not picnic lunches or jovial nighttime banter.
The Council’s seemingly defunct 2003 Northern Quarter Development Framework stated: “As mainstream housing developers encroach on the N4, the quality of the end product, both in terms of materials, finish and architectural merit may suffer.”
That was six years before planning permission was granted to the Holiday Inn and fifteen years ago, almost to the day.
The truth is, residents have lost faith in the Council (and Historic England) to preserve the character of the Northern Quarter. Salboy’s intruding on the area from all sides now: the former Tib Street car park, Back Turner Street, and Tariff Street. For now though, let’s stay with Salboy’s plans for Back Turner Street.
The proposals claim to pay respect to both sides of the plot, a smaller nondescript building facing the Northern Quarter, and a “gateway tower” facing Shudehill. Despite being in a conservation area, Salboy wants this to be a glass tower. It's hard to think of anything less appropriate as a gateway to the Northern Quarter - with it's red brick textile warehouses and Georgian weavers' houses
Such a red brick warehouse, dating from the 1920s, has been left standing on the Back Turner plot, not yet decrepit enough to tear down. Salboy have no intention of retaining it - but some residents do. They’ve tweeted suggestions of integrating the remaining structure with a new build.
While Salboy held a three week public consultation on the proposals, where the community could give feedback, in practice it wasn't easy to contribute. No online form existed, while Salboy’s website did not explain how to submit responses.
Moreover, Salboy are under no obligation to act on feedback, making the “consultation” simple box ticking. In other words, the planning system is stacked against residents, with very little transparency or ability to participate meaningfully.
Salboy will keep coming back until the neighbourhood is worn down and wants to get on with their lives. Colleagues and friends have reacted with sadness and stoicism, rather than action, when I’ve spoken to them about the glass tower.
But it’s those of us who live, work in and visit the Northern Quarter who will have to live with it. And as the Council is failing to represent its constituents or follow its own edicts, we have to start taking matters into our own hands.
What can you do?
Email your feedback to email@example.com or tweet them @salboyltd.
Residents are invited to attend the NQ Forum’s first AGM
Galvanised by the demolition, the Northern Quarter Residents Forum is holding its first Annual General Meeting on 16th October at Gullivers, Oldham Street at 7pm. @NQforum tweeted: “As the pressures on the NQ increase we must organise ourselves to ensure that we respond to the real threats that currently exist. If you live in NQ please join us.”