Sheffield Old Town Hall buyer 'could still walk away'

The buyer of Sheffield’s Old Town Hall could yet ‘walk away’ from the deal should plans to regenerate the historic building be rejected, it is understood.

By Robert Cumber
Monday, 23rd September 2019, 11:10 pm
Updated Tuesday, 24th September 2019, 4:46 pm

The crumbling former courthouse on Waingate in the city centre would be converted into serviced apartments, hotel ‘pods’ and a ‘souk’ style indoor market, under proposals submitted last month by Aestrom OTH.

Although the exterior of the Grade II-listed building would be largely untouched, other than to clean and restore the stonework, concerns have been raised about plans to gut the main courtrooms to make space for the apartments.

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The Friends of the Old Town Hall has yet to submit its response to the planning application, but at a meeting held by the group last night it was suggested there was too little detail about which of the historic fixtures and fittings would be retained and what would happen to those, like the court benches, which are removed.

It also emerged that Aestrom OTH, which is owned by Efekoro Omu, is not believed to have yet completed the purchase from G1 London Properties, having only put down a deposit when an ‘agreement for sale’ was reached earlier this year.

Valerie Bayliss, the group’s chairwoman said it is understood completion is scheduled for this December, the month after the application is expected to go before Sheffield Council’s planning and highways committee.

She said this kind of delayed completion was ‘entirely reasonable’ with such a building because ‘until you get in there you don’t know what you’re dealing with’.

The former Courtroom One at Sheffield Old Town Hall (pic: Aestrom OTH/Archaeological Research Services)

But Howard Greaves, chairman of Hallamshire Historic Buildings, said: “If he (Mr Omu) doesn’t get his own way, I presume he will walk away.”

Before the new buyer emerged, the friends group had put together its own proposals to purchase the building and convert it for a variety of uses, with the most impressive of the former courtrooms being retained as performance spaces.

Ms Bayliss has said the group would be ready to revive that scheme, under which members of the public would be invited to buy community shares in the early 19th century building, should the latest proposals fall through.

She told the meeting, held at the Gardeners Rest pub in Neepsend, that she understood Aestrom had already invested in some basic repairs and security for the building, on top of the deposit, so would take a financial hit should it pull out.

Speaking of the existing planning application, she said: “The trick with a building like this is striking the right balance with what you can keep and what has to go to make it a viable proposition financially.

“If you want to restore a complex old building like this something has to give. The issue here is whether too much gives with this proposal.”

Mr Greaves said: “I’m not for ripping out any of the old features, because they wouldn’t go into storage, they would be sold off.

“But, playing devil’s advocate, what else do you do with the courtroom space without destroying it?”

Concerns were also voiced at the meeting about crime and antisocial behaviour in the area, which it was suggested might put people off staying in the apartments and hotel pods, but it was recognised that the council and police are taking steps to address these problems.

And Ms Bayliss pointed to the example of a former prison in Oxford, which is now an upmarket Malmaison hotel, as proof plans to convert the former court cells in Sheffield into hotel rooms could work.

Aestrom OTH has said it is confident it has developed a plan which is ‘financially viable and which will be an asset to the wider Castlegate area’.

“This inevitably requires some internal changes, but we believe we are striking the right balance in order to keep the special character of the building,” added a spokeswoman for the developer.

To view the planning application, visit Sheffield Council’s planning portal and search 19/03052/FUL.