CIVIC SOCIETY NEWS
CIVIC SOCIETY NEWS
The decision by Kirklees Council to approve the planning application for the former Kirklees College site (Strategic Planning Committee, February 24, 2021) reflects badly on a council that aspires to make Huddersfield a great place to live by creating high quality spaces and breathing life back into our historic buildings.
Framing one of Huddersfield’s most important listed buildings, the Grade 2* former infirmary occupying one of the most conspicuous gateway sites around the ring road, the application comprised a single storey supermarket facing the ring road, conversion of the infirmary and adjacent listed buildings and large-scale residential blocks at the northern end of the site.
Committee members were, in fairness, placed in an invidious position, dealing with an application that one member said was ‘far too complicated for such an important site’. The application was part detailed, part outline, with an extensive number of plans and alterations since being submitted in 2018, making it almost impossible to determine how to deal with the complexity of a hybrid application. In truth, the application should not have been accepted in the first place.
Understandably, concerns were also voiced regarding the increasingly vandalised and deteriorating state of existing buildings, including the listed structures.
However, these issues should not have been an excuse for an outcome that does little to enhance the image of the town nor protect buildings of significant architectural merit, which are included on Historic England’s national register of buildings at risk.
Despite a lengthy debate and calls for the application either to be refused or deferred, the outcome was to approve the application.
So, what has been achieved?
The most likely element of the application to be constructed is the supermarket. Described by one member as ‘looking like a cowshed’, it was agreed that improvements to the elevational details and use of natural stone should be made conditional.
Other than that, the building is a poor reflection on the council’s ability to promote high quality architecture, especially for such a visible gateway site. Recent years have seen a number of high quality developments around the ring road – on the university campus and the sports centre, which have received awards in the Civic Society’s annual Design Awards. As one councillor remarked about the supermarket design: “I am totally underwhelmed by it.”
As for the new build residential blocks, officers explained why they were unable to separate these outline proposals from the overall application and parameters had been set, even though both Historic England and the Civic Society have voiced grave concerns with regard to their height, position and impact on houses along Portland Street, within a designated Conservation Area.
Perhaps, though, the greatest concern is that no priority or timescale has been given for the restoration and re-use of the Infirmary and adjoining listed buildings. The applicant has purely indicated a sum for ‘patching up’ the Infirmary and measures to protect it from vandalism.
In other words, apart from the supermarket development, nothing else is likely to progress, if at all, for some years to come. Ironically, should Lidl move to this new site it will presumably, vacate its present site on Castlegate, leaving the building and impressive frontage of the former Grand Picture Theatre/Ivanhoes on Manchester Road, vacant and at risk of vandalism.
Officers, indicating that they have worked closely with the asset management company that owns the site and submitted the application, made much of the problem of viability and emphasised the need to balance the protection of the listed buildings with the ‘substantial public benefit’ from development of the site.
It appears that, apart from demolishing vacant and vandalised buildings (hint to developers – a useful tactic for gaining planning permission is to ensure anything on site becomes a public eyesore), the only ‘public benefit’ gained from a site, vacant since 2014, is a supermarket of little architectural merit.
From the time this site was sold to Wednesday’s committee decision there’s a lesson to be learned by the council in delivering high standards of development, protecting the town’s heritage and promoting the image of the town for its long-term economic health. As it stands, the current outcome is a sad reflection on Kirklees’ ability to achieve any of these objectives.
Chairman, Huddersfield Civic Society
Victoria Tower, Castle Hill picture by Vinny Tyrell
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