MULTI-million-pound redevelopment plans for Coventry’s flagging city centre are under threat from heritage watchdogs’ plans to impose more preservation orders, a leading councillor has told the Observer.
The plans for the Upper Precinct include removing the unpopular escalator to restore the vista from the Lower Precinct to the cathedral, so it is more in keeping with the much celebrated post-war redevelopment by then city architect Sir Donald Gibson.
But Coventry city councillor Jim O’Boyle, cabinet member for jobs and regeneration, has now accused Historic England of jeopardising the entire scheme by seeking listed status for several aspects of the city centre, including the overhanging ‘canopies’ on Upper Precinct’s buildings.
He told us Historic England officers also want to list nearby buildings include the old Woolworth building and Leofric Hotel, which could be even more onerous for developers and put them off.
He told us today the Upper Precinct developers wanted flat double-fronted buildings while the plan was also to bring the shop fronts forward.
He added: “This is no different to what all retail developers are looking to do.
“Throughout, we have been keen to see redevelopment that would restore the Gibson redevelopment such as taking out the escalator.
“If the listing of the canopies goes ahead, it affects developers’ costs margins and they would have to reconsider whether it was affordable to remove the escalator and other redevelopment works.”
He said redevelopment plans were vital to revitalising the flagging city centre and bringing back shoppers and visitors day and night, which Coventry people wanted.
Coun O’Boyle also said some of the overhanging canopies had already been party removed, next to the double-fronted Waterstone’s bookshop building on the corner of Smithford Way and the Lower Precinct, itself revamped decades ago in sympathy with the original Gibson plan.
Coun O’Boyle claimed Historic England was set to recommend the listing to government, which routinely then rubberstamps Historic England recommendations.
It comes as conservationists the Twentieth Century Society urged Coventry City Council to put city centre schemes on hold – including the Upper Precinct revamp – until full heritage assessments were completed.
The Upper Precinct plan by developer Shearer Property Group has already been granted planning permission.
The Twentieth Century Society warned Coventry will lose crucial parts of its celebrated post-war architecture before it becomes UK City of Culture in 2021.
It claims the council’s City Centre South scheme also threatens the heritage of Bull Yard and City Arcade.
The Twentieth Century Society added: ‘We are deeply concerned by how many of Coventry’s post-war buildings and artworks are either directly under threat or face an uncertain future – and how little protection is afforded to Coventry’s distinctive architecture.
“All in all, the Coventry of the future is looking bleak – but there is still time for a turnaround before 2021. Let’s hope the council starts to sit up and capitalise on what makes Coventry so special now, rather than destroying what makes it unique.”
Colin Walker, vice-chair of the Coventry Society, claimed the planning process in Coventry was overwhelmingly in favour of large developers.
Ruling Labour councillors at next Tuesday’s cabinet meeting will discussing investing £7 million more external grants on ‘Public Realm’ works to improve the city centre area, including the escalator and ramp removal.
A Historic England spokesman told us:
“We have had several meetings with the council over the past few months, most recently with the Leader and Chief Executive last week, to discuss future plans for Coventry city centre and we are very keen to work with them to achieve a positive outcome.
“Our role is to advise the council. Our job is to focus on the long-term economic, cultural and social wellbeing of Coventry. We believe the redevelopment of the Upper Precinct is a great opportunity to use the wonderful architecture of the city to deliver real and lasting benefits for Coventry.
“Great places have heritage and the history of local people at their core, and this helps them sustain cultural life and economic vitality. Today’s great placemakers know this, and they are looking after historic buildings and incorporating them into new schemes. This is what we want for Coventry.
Like the council, we want to see a good scheme that does justice to the city and its heritage. We’re not asking for a hold on the regeneration programme as a whole, we are seeking a better solution for a small but very important part of one scheme.
“The reinvention of Coventry after the war and the vital role that its post-war architecture played in restoring pride and confidence in the city was a key feature of the City of Culture bid and we feel that the sensitive redevelopment of the Upper Precinct will help deliver on the potential of that bid.”
Asked to be more specific, we got the following futther response:
“We have clearly expressed our support for much of the development scheme as proposed, but we have identified two aspects which could be improved if it is to deliver the aspirations for a high quality public space and retail experience. We would like to see the retention of the precinct canopies and the maintenance of the open public space between and behind the colonnades. We continue to discuss these elements with the council and the developer and we hope to agree a way forward that is acceptable to all.”