Perth City Hall Square

Demolition refused – how Perth City Hall was saved

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THE EARLIER HISTORY of the sham council-led redevelopment of Perth City Hall, ‘Designed to fail’, covered the disastrous competitive tendering that wasted the years from 2004 to 2010, as well as huge expenditure by the Council and frustrated developers.  In retrospect it appeared to have been no more than an exercise to demonstrate no viable reuse could be found for adaptation of this renowned B-listed ‘Beaux Arts’ style building, which therefore should be demolished and replaced by a City Square.

Thus, the consultancy arm of transatlantic surveyors Colliers produced an impressive report to that effect, whereupon the Council applied to Historic Scotland for Listed Building Demolition Consent, which was refused because ‘potential alternative uses had not been properly explored’.

So the Council had to be grudgingly remarket the property.

That resulted in another public competition, for which I helped set up Perth City Market Trust.  We soon emerged as the only serious bidder, but economic conditions had not recovered from the World’s recent financial crash, and we never succeeded in engaging constructively with the Council, who were resentful of Historic Scotland’s powers and seized the first opportunity to cancel the project.

They called in new consulting surveyors, Jones Lang LaSalle, who produced another impressive report which duly concluded a City Square offered the best reuse of the site.  The application to what by then Historic Environment Scotland (HES) for demolition consent was resubmitted and again refused on the same grounds as two years previously, that the Council had still not fully explored the wider market for commercially viable uses.  This final marketing campaign, as all interested parties recognized, could not be allowed to fail.

Wariness of the Council’s persistence with demolition as a default strategy was intensified by their extraordinary next move, freely reported, to approach HES in order to obtain prior agreement whereby, if the Council remarketed the building again but found none of the proposals acceptable, then HES would relent and grant consent for demolition.

HES declined, realizing that no developer would enter a competition knowing that the Council had only to reject every entry in order to achieve its real purpose.

So JLL’s brief came out and, with a new professional team and new company, Perth Market Place Limited, I gave City Hall one more go.  On 26th June 2014 the Perthshire Advertiser’s headline “Market Place bid is frontrunner” was matched by the Courier’s “Call to back food hall bid”.  The consultants’ own assessment concluded: “JLL believes the Perth Market Place proposal would provide a deliverable and viable re-use for Perth City Hall.”

So we looked forward to the decisive Council Meeting on 1st July with confidence.

The other short-listed scheme, for conversion to a boutique hotel, satisfied the Council’s competitive criteria.  But it proved an anti-climax, even a non-event.  The PA reported on 3rd July: “PKC officers appeared to have made a clear recommendation for Councillors to back a bid by Perth Market Place Limited to turn the B-listed building into a food hall… But SNP group leader of the Council Ian Miller surprised Councillors when he made a motion to defer a decision until October 7th.  He remained unconvinced either of the two bids were viable and did not want to be forced into making a poor decision.”

Throughout the presentations by the two developers and subsequent debate there was no inkling of what was in store; no reason to doubt that the Council would conclude with a vote on the officers’ recommendation.  Nor did Councillor Miller explain his misgivings.  He simply handed the sheaf of copies of his motion paper (printed in advance of hearing the presentations) to staff for distributionThe UK MD of our Paris-based funders and his Project Manager, who had made the trip and stayed in Perth overnight to attend these proceedings, were totally ignored by Councillors and Officers, none of whom troubled to meet them.

But despite the setback and the snub, we persevered.   The Council Meeting on 7th October 2015 resolved, reluctantly, to proceed with Perth Market Place (PMP) as preferred bidder.  The Depute Leader, Councillor Alan Grant, declared: “It may seem strange that I have seconded this bid as the survival of the City Hall is anathema to me.  This is not the end of the process, it is just a stage: they [PMP] will have a lot to do to satisfy us.”  This was the language of an adversary rather than of a prospective major investor and civic partner.

The confirmatory letter of 13th October from the Depute Chief Executive detailed four requirements for an immense amount of additional information, much of it highly confidential, concerning our funding arrangements, corporate structures and shareholdings, development programme and management operations, all to be supplied by 13th January so that a report could be presented to the Council Meeting on 24th February.  This huge task, though daunting, could have been accomplished, but it is impossible to enter into such contingent contractual liabilities without sight of a draft contract, to see what conditions are attached; i.e. without provision of a Draft Agreement for Lease – the essential precursor to a 125 years Ground Lease – which was not available.  It was like trying to buy a house without missives!

The PA reported on 19th February: “Council bosses have decreed that the next meeting where the future of Perth City Hall will be debated by councillors should be held in private.”   So the report of the meeting was not published “in order to avoid disclosure of information which is exempt” but I obtained a copy, all 17 pages of the report stamped ‘Exempt’; yet it contained no more sensitive information than the corresponding papers for the equally decisive Council Meetings in July and February which had been held in public.

Thus our nomination was suspended and terminated at the Council Meeting in June, on the strength of the fortuitous opportunity which had meanwhile arisen – to apply for the title of UK City of Culture 2021 which offered an alluring alternative vision, for which the Council gladly abandoned both the overt objective of a cost-free reuse of the building for the long-term enjoyment of all the people – and the covert objective of pulling it down.

Postscript by the Editor: The Council eventually decided against commercial development altogether, instead redeveloping City Hall as a museum which will now display the Stone of Scone. Linacre’s doggedness had at least ensured the Council had to find a solution other than demolition.

On Friday 18 September Vivian Linacre, a few years into his nineties, slipped away from us after an illness bravely born. Vivian was a regular contributor to ThinkScotland and as a token of thanks and respect for his many thoughtful and lively articles we shall be republishing some of them here. In 2017 Vivian provided this reflection on his involvement in the campaign to keep Perth City Hall as a viable asset for the people of Perthshire and farther afield. This summary of 2004-2010 will be followed tomorrow by another to record the equally disastrous sequel, ‘Torpedoing the preferred bid’. © VIVIAN LINACRE April 2017 

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