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NewStart Feature: the struggles of Victorian regeneration

You would expect a Grade II building which dates back to the early 1900s to have a long and interesting history, and the York Road library and swimming baths in Leeds has been the victim of everything from years of neglect to being sold off by the local authority at a knocked-down rate, as Thomas Barrett reports…

Photos courtesy of Sam Hirst.

In the run-up to the 1938 Commonwealth Games in Sydney, (then called the British Empire Games), Doris Storey would take the half-mile walk from Burton’s tailors in Leeds to the York Road library and swimming baths to train. It was a daily ritual that led to a gold medal and legend status in the city.

The Grade II Listed building opened its doors in 1904 following a prize-winning design by architect H. Ascough Chapman. It was made up of a 23m pool and lending department which in its first year issued over 100,000 books.

The swimming baths closed in 1969 with the library following during the mid-1980s as part of a nationwide culling of libraries under Margaret Thatcher. The building was kept in part-use until the mid-90s as offices for Leeds City Council. But after standing empty for a decade and a half, it was included in the Victorian Society’s top 10 most ‘At Risk’ buildings. After years of uncertainty, the building is finally due to be put back into use. It is currently being restored in preparation for a new gym which is set to open later this year.

Writing on the wall

A freedom of information request to Leeds City Council reveals that in 2005 the building was sold to local businessman Jason Butler for just £17,000. Mr Butler had received planning permission to turn the library into a headquarters for his mortgage business, but shortly after purchasing the building, the plan was shelved.

Owners of listed buildings are legally required to maintain their upkeep but it took a campaign from a community group to force the council to issue an urgent works notice. Mr Butler then fitted what turned out to be an inadequate roof on the rapidly deteriorating building.

Anna Shelley, northern caseworker for the Victorian Society, says it’s a familiar story.

‘Due to different priorities, councils can fail to take a pro-active approach to enforcement and to use their statutory powers in serving urgent works notices in cases, which can further exacerbate deteriorating building conditions,’

Sam Hirst, part of a community action group who campaigned on behalf of the building, felt it was too little too late.

‘He put a substandard roof on and we gave up all hope,’ he says.

‘We had no confidence that the situation would improve. It got worse and worse over time. Vandals broke in stealing pipes, copper piping, original Edwardian door fittings and the fireplace. It was really sad to see the demise of such a wonderful building,’ and by 2012 the future of the building looked bleak.

But in August of that year, land registry documents reveal that the Rushbond Group paid £300,000 to Jason Butler for ownership of the building, over 15 times the amount received by Leeds City Council in 2005.

New Start spoke to Cllr Ronald Grahame who has represented the Labour Party in Leeds since 1981. He blames the Conservative and Lib Dem coalition who controlled the council at the time for sanctioning the sale, which in hindsight looks like a spectacular bit of bad business.

‘The residents wanted a swimming pool but the council at the time wouldn’t go down that route, they said it would be too expensive.’ he adds.

‘This is the problem with asset management, they didn’t give a proper valuation because it was in a derelict state.’

Following the Localism Act of 2011, communities can register a building as an ‘asset of community value’. This means councils must offer communities the chance to bid on such buildings. A community group in Leeds notably took advantage of this for their takeover of the Bramley Baths, which was built in the same year as the library in 1904, and transferred to community ownership in 2013.

However, back in 2005 the climate was slightly different. The general disposal consent was introduced in 2003 which gave councils the ability to sell assets at ‘less than best’ consideration through community asset transfer, otherwise, they must be sold at the highest market value. New Start has been told that in 2005 the building, although empty, was still in decent condition.

Naked to market forces

Speaking to New Start, Mark Finch, director at Rushbond explained the challenges of restoring such old buildings.

‘It needed a lot of tender loving care. Health and fitness is an interesting use for it because it respects its history as a baths, as well as fitting in with the council’s health and wellbeing agenda.’

Rushbond has been busy in Leeds in recent years and has bought up heritage locations including the Corn Exchange, the former Majestic nightclub as well as several other locations close to the former library and swimming baths. New Start asked Mr Finch why they paid £300,000 for a building that was sold just seven years earlier for just £17,000.

‘The building was wanted as parted of a regeneration of the wider area,’ he said

‘If you want a building you have to pay the price the owner wants for it.’

For Sam, he doesn’t mind that the building has ended up in private hands.

‘It needed investment from the private sector. Councils can’t afford to fill in potholes on the road,’ he says.

‘They have a good reputation for restoring derelict buildings and they are well known for their sympathetic restoration techniques. The remaining features of architectural interest have been restored and I do believe that Rushbond has the right skills to put the building back into use.’

With councils squeezed, investment in the private sector is obviously needed for many heritage buildings to be put back into use, but it can, like the aborted plans to restore York Road library in 2005/6, leave them naked to market forces.

The Egyptian-styled Temple Mill in Leeds was bought by Burberry who planned to restore the 1836 building so it could be their flagship site and raincoat factory. The site was disposed of by them in December last year because of ‘wider economic uncertainty’.

The mill was listed for sale at auction with a starting price of £1, which The Victorian Society says is ‘a high-risk method of sale for such a complex and highly significant historic building.’

The day before the building was due to go for auction the building was bought by local firm CEG and the building remains a very high priority on the Historic England Heritage ‘At Risk’ register.

The next chapter

With building work at York Road entering its final stage, Sam Hirst set up a Facebook page tracking the restoration, which includes contributions from local residents who have been sharing personal memories of when the library and baths were in operation. It’s had over 500 members join in just a few months, which Sam says highlights its importance to the area.

‘It’s treasured and it means something,’ he says.

‘Thousands of people drive past it every single day and when you look at that building you immediately identify as Leeds. It has a beautiful owl mosaic and other Leeds insignia throughout, so people identify strongly with it,’ he adds. There’s clearly a strong sense of emotion and connection to the building.

‘I learnt to swim there. My mate Dennis threw me in and you had to learn or you’d drown,’ remembers Cllr Grahame.

In March 2018 Jason Butler, who made a profit of over £285,000 when he sold the building to Rushbond, was sentenced to nine years in prison for VAT fraud (in matters unrelated to his ownership of the library and swimming baths).

Sam sees it as karmic justice to the people campaigned for the building’s protection under Mr Butler’s controversial ownership, and seeing it open later this year will put a bow on their decade and a half long efforts.

‘I think it will be a beautiful sight to see people using the building again,’ says Sam.

‘It’s going to be in public use so to see lights on and a flurry of activity. It’s what we’ve wanted all along. Personally, I don’t think it could be in better use as a gym. It was a leisure facility and it’s aiding fitness and mobility in the area.

‘The area surrounding the baths nowadays is dire. There’s lots of derelict housing and low opportunities. This would stand as a beacon of hope to the local area.’

Mr Finch of Rushbond agrees: ‘Those bad buildings give the area a bad name and sometimes you get the feeling the area is run down because the buildings are run down. Hopefully, by doing this it shows the local community that there are things going on that’s positive.’

Cllr Grahame agrees, and he hopes that it could kickstart a regeneration and create new memories for the local residents.

‘We’ll have to regenerate the area now. There’s no argument about it and I won’t settle for anything less.’

In 2005, when she died aged 96, Doris Storey’s funeral cortege stopped outside the then empty building. Now, at last, the council, developers and the community are swimming in the right direction.

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