Opinion: The cost of Heritage by Richard Bird

The need for urgent repairs to Hunstanton’s impressive Town Hall building resulted in an extraordinary meeting, called by the Mayor Tony Bishopp, to address the matter. Such is the condition of the building it could be declared “out of bounds” for safety reasons hence the issue could not wait until the Full Council meeting scheduled for 24th March.

There are three main areas of concern, the flooring in the main hall, the ceiling in the turret area and the need for immediate repairs, to the hip of the turret roof and the Hunstanton Council members were asked to approve an amount from reserve funds of some £30,000 to be set aside for the immediate start of any works.

The council became aware that there were serious problems when Town Clerk Jan Roomes narrowly missed being injured when a ceiling collapsed some weeks ago.

The Town Hall building was opened 1896 and over the years it has been the venue for many purposes and prestige events have been held within it. So, a theatre, a Magistrates’ and Coroners’ Court and meetings in the upstairs chamber. It has also been used as a film set (for Barnacle Bill), a temporary Morgue and has hosted many artistic exhibitions, the Bingo Club, a youth club, the Tourist Information Centre, the venue for a myriad of local organisations, civic receptions and much more.

However in recent years there have been some huge repair bills , most of which have not been covered by insurance. And it must be said that when any building gets over 100 years old there are bound to be repairs and renewals, as any who have owned such property would testify.

The last major repair, when the facia of the building came away from the main building structure, resulted in works with costs in the £000’s. Before that was the re-instatement of the basement, once again costing many £000’s that also included the cost of clearing asbestos.

The installation of the lift, that was needed for the Town Hall to function as a public building, required huge structural changes to the building with over £100,000 spent.

All of these costs have been in addition to the annual maintenance budget for repairs and renewals.

The burden of responsibility for the Town Hall building rests with the elected councillors, some of whom have been in office a relatively short time and they may not be aware of the history of the building and monies spent in previous years. At the meeting, Cllr Adrian Winnington (Deputy Mayor), pointed out that the building had been designed to impress and not to be considerate to those looking after it over a century later. He said: “We have to try to do the best we can with what we’ve got.”

As a matter of interest the Town Hall cannot be sold without the approval and financial release from its covenant. The land that the Hunstanton Town Hall stands on was gifted and would have to be cleared with the land donators if sale or re-development was considered. This was contemplated back in the 1980’s when the sub-lease was being considered for the Bingo Club, the then tenants of the basement area. Recently the former Hunstanton Infant School that is to be re-developed, and is currently owned by NCC, has been obliged to pay compensation to the donors of the land to clear its covenant.

All of this begs the question, is it time for a re-think? Perhaps the grandeur and prestige of a building that is a focal point in the town is a relic of a bygone era that doesn’t meet the needs of a modern Town Council. And do local ratepayers want to have their council tax spent on a building or on services for the community?

Is it time to move the Council offices to another building and allow the Town Hall building to be re-purposed?

Your views are welcomed, you can write, or e mail, to Town and Around.

editor@townandaround.net