Perth City Hall 2

Designed to fail – how Perth Council sought to demolish City Hall

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IN SEPTEMBER 2004, Perth and Kinross Council published a brochure, launching a public competition to propose new uses for Perth City Hall, the great ‘B’-listed building that was otherwise to be declared redundant and closed upon completion of the new Concert Hall in 2005.   Scheme designs and business plans were invited with accompanying bids for a 125-years Head Lease.  The entire exercise was conducted in private by a few officers; none with the necessary qualifications or experience as the Council employed only property managers.  No specialist consultant surveyors were engaged.  No independent expert valuation was obtained for the Council’s guidance. Marketing and advertising were minimal and far too late to widen interest.

The lavishly produced brochure provided no essential information on programme or procedures but featured several photographs, including one of New York’s “Rockerfeller [sic] Center”.   Approved ‘Land Uses’ included “Residential:  there has been significant growth in housing in the city centre in the last twenty years and there is support for further development…”  But Part II S.8(1) of the Land Reform Act 1974 prohibits residential occupancy within a property held on long lease – yet a long lease was all the Council was offering. Challenging this contradiction at a briefing with the responsible officers produced a painful silence, as they had never heard of the legislation.

The Council’s brochure was a false prospectus.

The closing date for submissions was 21 January 2005.  Linacre Land Limited presented two schemes, ‘A’ and ’B’ plus an architectural scale model of ‘A’.  Informal responses from responsible officials were encouraging. The Council’s Press Office announced publicly the Council’s satisfaction with the response, including one entry with an architectural scale-model – a highly improper public disclosure in mid-competition.

Yet suddenly we were told, on grounds which later proved fictitious, that the “project board” had declared the entries invalid and invited resubmissions by 29 April.  We added Schemes ‘C’ and ‘D’ to keep ahead of the game, while Henry Boot added refinements to their two respectable schemes.  But the third ‘front runner’, Wharfside Regeneration, who had submitted only one crude design, announced they saw no reason to modify it, while unveiling a newly produced architectural scale model.

Meanwhile, we learnt that the “project board” did not exist.  The FOI Officer wrote (April 6th): “The Project Board to which you refer is the Council’s Executive Officer Team who in turn report to the Strategic Policy and Resources Committee.  The EOT consists of the Chief Executive plus four Executive Directors… The constitution of the EOT is not recorded.”

We were never invited or given any opportunity for interview or to make a presentation at any level.  The decisive Council Meeting on 2nd November 2005 was advised of “consultation with local and national representative bodies including Perthshire Chamber of Commerce, Perth Civic Trust, Perth City Partnership, Perth City Centre Action Group, St John’s Kirk, Historic Scotland and the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland.”   But the two between the Civic Trust and St John’s Kirk are imposters, slipped in as if additional independent consultees rather than mini-quangos created by the Council and cited here in order to bolster apparent support for Wharfside.  A diagram obtained by FOI illustrates the network:

City Centre Action Group is accountable to Perth City Centre Partnership Co-ordinating Group which is accountable to Perth City Partnership Steering Committee which is accountable to Perth & Kinross Economic Partnership which is accountable to the Council.

The full article gives a detailed account of the Council’s gross manipulation in Wharfside’s favour of the genuine consultees’ assessments and also of the rival bids, from material elicited by relentless FOI enquiries.

My schemes and Henry Boot’s were fully funded.  Wharfside’s, not merely unfunded but unfundable, was selected.  Some six months later, with no sign of progress, the Council executed a formal Agreement for Lease, binding the Council to a contract which Wharfside could not fulfil, while still assuring the public that it would.  The Council remained committed when the Agreement was reduced to a mere Option, by insertion of Sub-Clause 3.1.2, making it subject to: “the Developer obtaining heads of terms from prospective tenants of the Development for the letting of the Lettable Units comprising not less than 50 per cent of the net lettable floor space of the Development…”  Until at least half the units were pre-let, they could not obtain funding; but until the project was funded it was impossible to pre-let anything.  Yet that is what the Council agreed.

After years of total inertia, with a clear run in bullish conditions through 2006-07, the Head of Legal Services wrote to me on 11th September 2008: “the Council remains of the view that despite the difficulties in the current economic climate, the Wharfside scheme will be delivered and will be a successful project for both the developer and the City of Perth.”

Four days later, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.  But it still took the Council another full year to cast off from Wharfside. In any such public competition, if the preferred bidder fails, then the reserve bidder is invited to proceed; but yet again the Council broke the rules, choosing to ignore my company’s continuing interest.  Instead, they wasted another three years and huge expense on successive reports from consultants to prove that City Hall was not worth saving but should be replaced by a civic square, with successive applications to Historic (Environment) Scotland for Listed Building Demolition Consent which were bound to fail.

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 the sequel recording the attempts to torpedo development that only led to City Hall being saved – ‘Demolition refused – How Perth City Hall was saved’. © VIVIAN LINACRE April 2017 

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