THE remains of what was once one of Wigan’s grander buildings are about to bite the dust.
Contractors were brought in by the council to pull down a listed but unsafe section of the former town hall last week with the intention of shoring up the rest on Rodney Street. But further inspection has revealed that even this is dangerously unstable and soon only a pile of rubble will remain of the 136-year-old edifice.
The news is bound to provoke strong and mixed feelings. Few deny this has been one of the unseemlier blots on the Wigan landscape for more than two decades. But opinion is split over what should have been done.
In one camp are preservationists who say that the local authority should have intervened far sooner, even though it no longer owns the premises, then the facade might have been saved. Others see it as an eyesore which, despite attractive features, has proved an obstacle to the site’s being redeveloped.
Ownership of the ruin has changed hands several times since Wigan Council moved base to the former mining college in Library Street. Most of the building was razed immediately, but the grade II listing of the frontage meant the authority was required to preserve it and only accept planning applications tastefully incorporating it into future developments.
Plans have come and gone but nothing has so far been approved. And because the current owners are Jersey-based and so fall outside EU jurisdiction, they cannot be compelled to keep the building in good order. For the authority to have given up and carried out repairs itself would have landed taxpayers with a large bill in the midst of a recession.
But the demolition work will be paid for by the owners.
The Council’s director of economy Steve Normington said: “Since the work began last week, the extent of decay has become apparent. Regrettably, there is simply no wall stable enough to support the remaining structure and unfortunately the whole of the building will have to be demolished. The council’s assessment has been supported by three independent engineers who all agree what’s left of the town hall is structurally unsafe and hazardous. As public safety is our top priority, we have no choice but to act. We’re working closely with local heritage groups to keep them informed of developments. They’re also helping us identify parts of the building of particular importance, which we hope to recover for conservation purposes.”
One of the first people to welcome the news was neighbouring restaurant owner Franco Spinelli who has been campaigning for the site to be cleaned up for years. He said: “I am happy the ruin is coming down. It would have been nice if they had used it as part of a new building but that chance was lost 20 years ago. Now it is dirty and dangerous. I just hope something nice gets built there instead.”
But local resident Christine Barbour-Moore said it was “heartbreaking” to see demolition crews causing ornate stone finials to fall crashing to the ground, adding: “I work nearby and am seeing the daily destruction of this iconic and historic building.”
She and Brian Parr of the Save Wigan Heritage Group said Wigan Council should have done more save an important piece of local history at an earlier point.
On the issue of care taken in demolition, Mr Normington said: “Wherever possible, we will try and retain the building’s key features. Due to the nature of the works however, it is important that we balance these aspirations without compromising public safety.”