Protect our heritage and keep library

In Part 4 of our week-long series on Halifax's controversial Northgate development opportunity, Dr John Hargreaves, of the Halifax Civic Trust, gives his opinion.

Last month Halifax Civic Trust hosted a civic visit to Somerset House to promote interest in this refurbished town centre jewel, which the Civic Trust had been instrumental in conserving.

Half a century ago, Halifax Civic Trust helped shape the acclaimed Woolshops development with its significant historic features, which distinguished Halifax from other town centres intent on clearing sites for Arndale-scale retail development.

The Civic Trust also campaigned for the incorporation of historic features from the imposing Sion Chapel into the bus station, including the classical faade of the Regency chapel, the Italianate Sunday School building and the Victorian Jubilee Arches, which like so many other vestiges of Halifax's historic past add character to Halifax's unique townscape and help define the town's identity.

It is also striving to ensure that high quality conservation linked to imaginative new uses will ensure a sustainable future for the Halifax Piece Hall, helping to revitalise Halifax as a visitor and retail attraction in the 21st century.

All these initiatives have demonstrated how heritage can connect with the town's economic future by creating a townscape with a distinctive ambience which is attractive to business investors, residents and visitors alike.

Heritage, which Halifax has in abundance, is an elusive concept. It needs to be underpinned by a community interest in local history.

The exceptionally fine combined library, archives and meeting room facilities with over 3km of shelving and housing four major special collections assembled over centuries help sustain this vital interest, which is so inextricably linked to the town's economic future.

Amongst the hundreds of thousands of carefully conserved treasures from across Calderdale are exquisitely bound volumes by Edwards of Halifax from the 18th century, the nationally significant Anne Lister diaries from the 19th century and the manuscripts of Phyllis Bentley from the 20th century.

This massive archive could not be accommodated in a minimalist outlet, tucked away in the upper reaches of a retail re-development, and it would cost millions to replicate it elsewhere.

Calderdale Central Library with its annual footfall of 400,000, meets a range of other vital community needs from Busy Babies to U3A, contributing to lifelong learning and providing safe, supervised, community space, with virtually round-the-clock access and no prohibitive entry tariff.

It is not surprising that it is a hugely valued cultural asset by all sections of the community, in what is otherwise a centre dominated by retail. Moreover, it is easy to forget that it is itself part of Calderdale's inheritance, facilitated in part by the sale of Belle Vue Mansion, and it remains one of the greatest achievements of CMBC which no other metropolitan district in West Yorkshire has matched.

Re-development should therefore explore the feasibility of the Royal Mail site and other languishing inner urban sites such as the extensive Theatre Royal site and even locations on Halifax's outer urban periphery, where there is already evidence of a thriving retail sector accessible to both pedestrians and motorists.

Retail expansion should be encouraged but not accomplished at the cost of the loss of valuable cultural assets which contribute to Halifax's vibrancy.

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Tomorrow we speak to Woolshops manager Jason Gregg