Empty buildings in Halifax put our heritage in danger

On June 17, Civic Day, in line with Civic Voice’s theme for the year, the Big Conservation Conversation, Halifax Civic Trust organised a walk for members of the public to draw attention to this growing problem in the town of empty buildings. Halifax is exceptional in the range and quality of its buildings; certainly it ranks among the best in the country for town of its size. In 1979 Sir John Betjeman, Poet Laureate and lover of fine architecture, wrote: ‘Halifax is full of character and hidden beauty. The Piece Hall is symbolic of its hidden and great worth. The skyline of Halifax, its churches, chapels, mills and warehouses, is something never to be forgotten and gives Halifax its identity.’

Nearly 40 years on what Betjeman wrote remains true as the town centre largely escaped the destruction of many towns and cities in the 1960s and ‘70s. The jewels include Sir Charles Barry’s Italianate town hall, opened in 1863 by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, and the Borough Market, opened by the Duke and Duchess of York, later King George V, in 1896, along with a spectacular townscape of high Victorian streets such as Crossley Street, Princess Street, Crown Street, Commercial Street and Southgate. And there is, too, the diamond in the crown from an earlier age, the unique Piece Hall – a market for the sale of ‘pieces’ of cloth – built in 1779 and currently undergoing a £19 million makeover.

But for all the fine buildings that the 1960s and ‘70s forgot to demolish, there is an alarming number of fine historically and architecturally important buildings that today lie empty and unused and have been so, in some cases, for years. Some of them are at the very core of the town centre – buildings such as the former Theatre Royal and the former crown post office.

Two events in 2016 drew attention to the increasing number of these empty buildings. They were the closure of both of Halifax’s surviving court buildings, the Calderdale Magistrates’ Court, of 1889, and the county court, a distinguished palazzo of 1870, axed by the Courts and Tribunals Service as a cost-saving measure along with more than 80 other courts throughout the country. Then came the closure of the post office after 129 years, replaced by new facilities within the town’s W H Smith store.

The list of unused historic buildings, almost all of them listed, is a long one. It also includes the Georgian former Holy Trinity Church, opened in 1798 but made redundant in 1980 and converted to offices; and Harrison House, former HQ of Halifax Literary and Philosophical Society, built in 1834 with extensions in the 1860s and incorporating a lecture theatre with noted acoustics. Also the Theatre Royal, built in 1905 to replace an earlier theatre of 1790 which was destroyed by a fire in 1904, and later converted into a cinema, then a bingo hall and unsuccessfully as a night club, now empty for many years.

Then there is the once well-known former Simpsons store, a large, ornate 1880s structure, empty for several for several years and said to be in poor condition internally; and two shops in Northgate, knocked into one and restored but empty for at least eight years. Also some Victorian wool warehouses at the edge of the conservation areas, built between 1845 and 1875 and generally in poor condition; and the Great Northern Shed, a fine railway warehouse, built in 1885, but empty for decades.

Finally there is the Georgian Somerset House, a genuine stately home, listed grade 2*, built in 1766, probably by the famous Yorkshire architect John Carr, of York, in the very heart of the town. In the 19th century this 17-bay house with warehouses was swallowed up by the expanding town and used as a bank and post office, among other things. Although recently restored, parts of the building, including the sumptuously stuccoed first-floor salon, are currently unoccupied.

Halifax Civic Trust fears that if these historic buildings left empty for too long their condition will deteriorate, putting their future at risk. The trust’s vice-chairman, David Glover, who organised the Civic Day walk, said: “We are concerned about the future of these buildings. We wish to conserve them and find new uses, with sympathetic conversion where possible.”