The man at the centre of Haigh Hall’s redevelopment has spoken out about the project becoming embroiled in a bitter row with residents.
Craig Baker, co-director of Contessa Hotels which is leasing the 19th-century landmark from Wigan Council as a boutique destination, broke his silence to discuss the controversial access issues which have led to a huge petition and campaign by unhappy Wiganers.
He said building regulations had rendered the main path from the car park to the house - which campaigners are furious now has locked gates on during events - unsuitable for disabled access.
To compound the problem he said work on the panoramic path, which acts as an alternative route, has been hit by a catalogue of problems and delays.
He also spoke of his disappointment at how the access dispute has developed but said Contessa Hotels remains committed to making a success of the venture, praising the refurbishment work and reminding residents of the state the building was previously in.
He said: “At the end of the day the building needed saving. It had no future, it was on the at-risk register and it was on the verge of being boarded up.
“There has been huge investment into the building and the deal done between the council and ourselves took two years to put together.
“Everyone acted with the best intentions to create what we have created.”
Campaigners in the access row say they are not opposed to the hotel but merely want unfettered public access to the grounds, which was set out in the lease when the Crawford family gave the hall to the local authority, to be respected.
Mr Baker described the decisions that were made over public access and the chain of events which meant the whole thing did not go smoothly.
He said: “The north entrance, which is the one everyone is shouting about running into the back of the building, does not come up to building regulations because of the slope.
“It is not suitable for disabled access. It is too steep. If somebody pushing a wheelchair had a heart attack or some other medical emergency or simply slipped the wheelchair would run down the bank. That’s why that legislation is there.
“There had to be an alternative and the only way we could get from the stable blocks to the miniature railway station was the route we are using. That’s the only one with a gradient that is acceptable.
“We also wanted the path to be away from the driveway, which it is quite clear on the lease is for vehicle access.
“We offered to put a pathway parallel to the driveway but the council and Inspiring Healthy Lifestyles decided they didn’t want any more asphalt down.”
Unfortunately even once a route had been decided on there were problems to be overcome, including some which Mr Baker admits neither Contessa nor civil servants had seen coming.
Some of the problems have continued to have knock-on effects and helped to create considerable uncertainty about the panoramic path.
Recently the council’s cabinet sided with the protestors in declaring the route unsafe. Contessa promised to do work on it but even that has not been plain sailing.
Mr Baker said: “On the original planning application we wanted the bank between the hall area and the scenic path to be covered in 5,500 plants. We were going back to what was on the 1908 Ordnance Survey.
“It turns out there is a particular woodland on that bank and we can’t do what we wanted. We do try to keep it tidy by strimming it.
“The pathway is six feet wide and was finished as it should have been. We used exactly the same materials as on the other park pathways.
“However, because the bank can’t be planted kids have been sliding down it and that has worn it away, in two places particularly. The planting would have held the ground.
“This would have been done straight away, two and a half years ago, but we’ve had that much time discussing that bank. Councillors weren’t aware of it during the application and neither were planners.
“If I could wave a magic wand I would put the plants in and restore it as the original planning permission was supposed to do.
“The main drive coming through the plantation was created for guest access by a fantastic architect. It’s long and it winds and twists so you see nothing but trees and then all of a sudden you turn and there’s this lovely building with its vista and the bank covered in colour. The intention was to take it back to that glory.
“The work was ordered to be done last week but it couldn’t be done because of the snow. Had we been able to do it we would have met our end-of-January deadline. It’s now planned for this week.”
Mr Baker spoke openly about the level of public unhappiness over the gates dispute and said he wished more attention would be paid to just how much work has been done on the hall.
He said: “People don’t like change and it’s the change they focus on, which is a shame. They talk about half a dozen windows we haven’t got round to doing yet but not that the entire south side and east side are done.
“They scream and shout about the driveway but it’s not cheap tarmac that will break up in no time. It’s belt and braces, high-quality stuff we’ve used.
“It’s also more open now then it has ever been. People talk about it being public access but anyone can walk through the door now and I couldn’t do that when I got there. During the negotiations it was only open for weddings.
“There are massive upsides that people just want to ignore.
“It’s been very disappointing. I was pushed to the point where I never went to the building for six months, I was so cheesed off with it.
“Since then I’ve knuckled down because what we’ve done has safeguarded the building for 100 years.
“If they want to believe I’m a bad man then it’s disappointing. We’ve done everything with the best intentions and I really believe we’ve done the right thing.”