Photo: Simon Hollis
At the end of November 2023 Sheffield’s digital news site Tribune published an in-depth article [The Old Town Hall has had some terrible owners. Is Gary Ata the worst? (sheffieldtribune.co.uk)] about the lamentable state of the Old Town Hall, one of the largest, oldest and most significant historic buildings in the city centre, which though Grade II listed is deteriorating inexorably. Tribune had previously reported on the building in August 2021: Sheffield’s Old Town Hall changes hands again (sheffieldtribune.co.uk).
I posted blog articles about the Old Town Hall in 2011 [Court adjourned | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times], 2015 [Friends of the Old Town Hall | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times] and 2019 [Old Town Hall at risk | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].
Ownership has long been a problem with this building. It was never owned by the City Council or its elected predecessors. It was built in 1807-08, before Sheffield was even a borough, by the Town Trustees, one of the three ancient foundations that administered the town from Tudor times.
Through the nineteenth century the Trustees leased space to the borough authorities until the new Town Hall was completed in 1897. After that the building became the city’s law courts until 1995 when the new Crown Court building opened on West Bar.
The Department of the Environment bought the Old Town Hall in 2000 and passed it to a succession of property developers who allowed the place to rot. The intentions – and sometimes the identities – of these shadowy figures have not always been apparent to the media or the public.
By 2007 it featured as one of the Victorian Society’s Top Ten Endangered Buildings, and in 2014 the Friends of the Old Town Hall group was established to promote its significance.
The only owner who made a positive effort to put the Old Town Hall to commercial use was Mr Efekoro Omu, whose 2019 scheme for serviced apartments, hotel rooms in the old cells and a “souk” – “a boutique marketplace of characterful commercial spaces” – would have severely compromised its historic integrity.
That idea sat uneasily with the scheme that the Friends had created using funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Architectural Heritage Fund.
Mr Omu’s scheme collapsed during the Covid lockdowns and led to his bankruptcy in 2021. When the Old Town Hall was sold, the Friends estimated that restoration might cost £15 million. That figure has undoubtedly risen since, as weather, inflation, vandalism and neglect take their toll, perhaps to £25 million.
The problem is conservation deficit, the gap between the cost of restoring a neglected building and its market value when fully restored. Consequently, commercial use almost inevitably compromises historic integrity, so a prominent historic structure like the Old Town Hall needs to be supported by scarce grant aid.
Urban explorers may yet be the saving of the building because they have chronicled and publicised its increasingly miserable condition.
In Bradford the New Victoria Cinema might have gone by now if urban explorers hadn’t publicised the fact that behind post-war modernisations the original 1930 décor was intact and retrievable: Our History Timeline | Bradford Live.
In Sheffield, two more modest cinemas bit the dust, as I chronicled in my book Demolished Sheffield [Demolished Sheffield | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times], because their intact interiors weren’t recognised until the roof was off. An English Heritage inspector apparently declared that the ornate Electra Palace (1911), Fitzalan Square, did not merit listing shortly before it burnt down in 1984. The Star Cinema, Ecclesall Road (1915) was unrecognised as an intact silent-movie picture house until part way through its demolition in 1986.
I’ve met a number of building owners who are wary of the “risk” of having their buildings listed because they fear it will prevent them from using the site as they wish, but Sheffield can be proud of buildings at risk that became thriving assets to their owners and the community, such as Carbrook Hall (17th-century, II*), Greentop Circus (1876, II) and the soon-to-be-opened Leah’s Yard (mid-19th century II*).
The ultimate player in the process of rescuing buildings in distress is the City Council and it’s true that they have in the past missed chances to wrest the Old Town Hall from negligent owners. At one time the Council had a team of planners whose brief was to monitor the city’s stock of historic structures. Now there is only one conservation officer, and he works part time and lives outside the city. His workload is unenviable.
For this reason, when I raise an issue about a historic building, as I did recently with the listed Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, I present a concern but I don’t hold my breath waiting for action.
In particular, after decades of financial strictures, the Council’s priorities are rightly prioritised to supporting essential services and helping vulnerable people.
For the immediate future, whether an old building that’s lost its purpose stands or falls depends on community stakeholders and imaginative benefactors who can work together to make the city a better place for future generations.
The least any of us can do as individuals is to express concern about the Old Town Hall, the Adelphi Cinema or any other Sheffield building that we don’t want to lose.
A good place to start is by contacting the Council’s heritage champion, Councillor Janet Ridler: Sheffield Council makes ‘small but significant’ steps for heritage (thestar.co.uk) at Councillor details – Councillor Janet Ridler | Sheffield City Council.