Plane Tree Nest Lane
At the Renaissance Team meeting on April 7, when a question and answer session was held on the subject of Northgate House, several councillors denied my suggestion that there was a secret agenda to move the council offices to the Broad Street site. Let us consider the evidence.
In 2007, the council announced that refurbishment of Northgate House rather than demolition was ‘by far the best option’. The Broad Street site at this time was a car park, with no developer in sight.
In 2008, a developer appeared and it was announced that Broad Street was among the sites being considered by the council for a replacement for Northgate House as it would give added support to the major new retail and leisure development. Suddenly, demolition was the best option. Planning permission for the Broad Street site was given in spite of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) describing the plans as ‘mediocre’ and saying ‘Halifax deserves better’.
It was also announced that the Library would move onto Broad Street, together with the Health Centre. In total, about a quarter of the area would be occupied by public offices – a very valuable boost for the developers.
After this a series of justifications for the change of heart over Northgate House were trotted out by council planners, including the need for large retail development on that site. At the Town Team meeting it was said that stores such as Primark had required site areas of 4650 to 7350 square metres in other towns, implying that the same would be required here.
But the Northgate House site, including the car park and courtyard, is only 3000 sq. m, so this argument does not hold water. The GPO site below Northgate House at 6600 sq. m. is large enough, but the council does not own it. It would cost £4 million even if the GPO was willing to sell, but we were told that they do not want to move, so any plans for a great new shopping centre are just pie in the sky.
The next reason given was that shoppers are unwilling to walk more than 300 yards between shops, so putting retail shops on the Northgate House site would encourage mobility – in other words, provide a link between Woolshops and . . . Broad Street!
Finally, Ian Gray, Director of Economy & Environment, said that Northgate House had been designed for a life of only 35 years, and was now at the end of their life. I doubt that he could produce any evidence from the original specification to justify this.
Other buildings constructed at about the same time and of similar materials, such as the former Pennine Insurance building in King Cross Lane (later occupied by Adult Social Care), and the HBOS headquarters building, are not thought to be at the end of their life.
The Council has taken the decision to save the Library and Archives building, which is part of the same block as Northgate House. The many members of the public who use this facility do not see the need to replace the windows and roof, and install air conditioning. If this part of the block is suitable for further use, why not Northgate House?
Ian Gray also said that a replacement for Northgate House would not require the council to borrow money if the property was rented from the private sector. This would saddle the ratepayers of Halifax with a huge annual bill. So what about the alternatives? Firstly, the refurbishment could be done over a period of time, spreading the cost. Air conditioning is environmentally unfriendly and should be taken out of the account. If one or two windows have condensation, this does not mean that all 750 should be replaced at the same time.
Many similar savings could be made. Secondly, the building could be offered to a private developer, who could refurbish it, perhaps including retail development on the ground floor, and lease back the offices to the council. This would offer the best solution in the present circumstances.
So, is there a secret agenda? If the council does move the offices to Broad Street after all, this will prove there was.
Wait and see.