Every use of building must be explored

Bank Buildings Mill Bank

It is disappointing to learn of the state of disrepair into which the Stainland Mechanics Institute has fallen, and equally disappointing to learn of the Calderdale Council's plans to dispose of it.

A report prepared for the Liberal Democrat and Labour-controlled cabinet meeting on 11 January 2011 suggests that 125,000 can be secured by preparing now for the disposal of the building and, at the same time, current liabilities in terms of rateable value can be reduced. Whilst it is evident that the fabric of the building has deteriorated to the extent that the costs of repair, let alone refurbishment, are very high, it is suggested that there are serious flaws with the proposed approach.

The report to Cabinet does not make reference to the fact that the building, whilst not formally Listed, plays an extremely important role within the Stainland Conservation Area. For those unfamiliar with it, the Mechanics' Institute was built by the local Shaw family of textile manufacturers in 1883 "to improve the moral, social and intellectual habits of the inhabitants" and has played an important role in the community ever since. It is also noted that there is no mention in the report of the sales receipt being ring-fenced for the benefit of Stainland residents.

The building's position within the Conservation Area places a duty upon the council as Local Planning Authority to explore every possible way of maintaining the building in an active use, but the option of an alternative use is quickly dismissed in the report to cabinet on the basis that capital is not available to make the building good. There is also no recognition of the fundamental review of council services that the imminent budget will necessitate.

For example, the future of Stainland Library is likely to be considered as part of a wider review of the library service. A scenario may emerge whereby the library building, which is of considerably less architectural merit, could be sold to subsidise the refurbishment of the Mechanics Institute for a library and other community uses. Given that the council's only identified liability would be 3,063 per annum in rates, there is surely merit in waiting to see whether this, or a similar scenario, emerges.

The value of the site as a heritage asset also makes it extremely difficult to gauge what a true market value really is, especially now as the housing market slowly emerges from the recession.

Issues such as the range of appropriate uses, parking provision and the original features to retained mean that it would be extremely difficult for a prospective purchaser to be certain of how the site could be developed and the offers for it would be low to reflect that.

Over a period of time, and in parallel to the return of property market, a purchaser taking advantage of an immediate sale would resolve these issues, secure planning permission for an alternative use, and at the same time secure an uplift in value far and above the figure paid to the council.

It would surely be preferable for the council to spend time itself in resolving some of the uncertainties around the development of the site, perhaps by securing planning permission itself or at the very least by issuing a development brief. This would remove the uncertainties that would lower the market value; confirm how the site could be redeveloped and provide a period of time within which the housing market might recover.

It is suggested, therefore, that the correct approach should be to explore every possible way of maintaining the building in community use, but, if it has to be disposed of, it should be done in a way that genuinely maximises value for Stainland.

Samuel Stafford

Conservative Candidate in Greetland & Stainland