The roof of the historic Mechanics’ Institute is so close to collapse that Swindon Borough Council is to dismantle it next week. English Heritage has agreed with the decision. But a former chair of Swindon Council’s planning committee has accused it of criminal neglect of town’s heritage
Work to remove the roof over the main Northern part of the Grade II* listed building will begin on Monday. All the roads around it will be closed for three weeks, with diversions in place for all traffic, including buses. Significant delays and disruption are expected.
The operation will be carried out from above using mobile cranes and platforms, as the roof is too unstable to allow workers underneath it. This means that it cannot be propped up from within the building, and engineers and structural experts have concluded that the only option is to dismantle the roof before it falls in.
Laser monitoring equipment set up since the council took control of the privately-owned building in July has revealed that even in that short period, the roof has moved significantly.
Cllr Garry Perkins, Swindon Borough Council deputy leader, said: "We have taken over the building in the nick of time. An uncontrolled collapse of the roof could well cause other damage to the structure.
"Once the roof is off we will then protect the building with scaffolding and sheeting to prevent further weather damage. There will inevitably be disruption in the area but it is vital that this work is carried out quickly."
As much as possible of the historic roof structure will be retained so that it can be used in any future restoration, or serve as a template for areas that need to be reconstructed with new material.
Local councillors are being kept informed of the progress of the work and a meeting for nearby residents in the Railway Village has been organised on Wednesday of next week to explain what is happening and give them a chance to question the people in charge of the project.
Leaflets will be distributed to nearby residents over the weekend explaining why the work is necessary and outlining the road closures and temporary bus routes.
In addition to problems with the roof, the interior of the Mechanics’ Institute has suffered significant damage and there are high levels of contamination from asbestos and lead, materials commonly used in the railway works. Measures are in place to ensure that none of the contaminants escape from the confines of the building during the work.
Pictured, above, remedial work being undertaken by Swindon Borough Council. Below, the decrepit state on the main hall in side of the Mechanics Institute
Swindon Borough Council was granted the legal right to temporarily take over the Mechanics’ Institute in July to carry out Urgent Works after failing to receive sufficient reassurances from the owner, Forefront Estates, that it would do the work within a reasonable time and to the required standard. The council will seek to recover the cost of the work from the owner.
The owners of listed buildings have a legal duty to ensure they do not deteriorate. Forefront Estates, which has owned the building since 2002, has been carrying out building work for a number of years on the South side of the building after it was granted permission to create apartments, offices and a café.
The Urgent Works involve the northern half of the building. The council secured a grant of £250,000 from English Heritage to carry out the Urgent Works.
The Mechanics’ Institute opened in 1854 as an educational centre for railway workers, but was closed and disposed of by British Rail in 1986. After securing Grade II* listed status in 1999, it was placed on English Heritage’s list of historic buildings that are at risk.
Diversion route details: From 10.00am on Monday 13th September 2010, the following roads will be closed to all traffic, for up to a maximum of 21 days:
1. Emlyn Square West between Bathampton Street and Bristol Street.
2. Emlyn Square East between Oxford Street and Bristol Street
3. Bristol Street between Emlyn Square West and Emlyn Square East
London Street /Sheppard Street will be two way traffic for access only. The current one way order will be suspended.
The following diversion routes will be implemented.
1. Faringdon Road (Emlyn Square) Farnsby Street, Commercial Road, Princes Street, Fleming Way, Holbrook Way, Bridge Street, Sheppard Street , Station Road. Access only into Sheppard Street/London Road, which will become a two way road
2. Bristol Street , Church Place, Park Lane, Faringdon Road. The diversion route follows as in 1 above.
3. Emlyn Square, Exeter Street, Church Place.
4. Oxford Street, East Street, Read Street, Exeter street, Church Place and Park Lane.
From Lisa Hawkes, trustee of Mechanic’s Institution Preservation Trust Ltd and chair of the Swindon Civic Trust
The Mechanics Institution, Swindon
The following is my personal view as an ex-Swindon Borough Councillor (2000-2006), ex-chair of the Swindon Borough Council Planning Committee, current Trustee of the New Mechanic’s Institution Preservation Trust Ltd (NMIPT) and Chairman of the Swindon Civic Trust.
The current diabolical situation with the ongoing state of works with the Mechanics building is literally and figuratively CRIMINAL. Literally (not many people are aware of this) because it is a criminal offense to neglect, structurally change without planning permission or damage a Grade II* listed building. Figuratively because as a Trustee of the NMIPT I have seen us repeatedly and continually shut out of discussions with the council and other “interested” parties.
How the council can go on record as being ‘surprised’ at the poor state of the roof and condition of the building is beyond belief and unbelievably obtuse. Over the last 15 years the Trust has continually drawn attention to the deterioration and damage being done to the building, while also offering constructive and viable options for the renovation, usage and on costs.
Despite the Trust’s many achievements over the years:
*Applying for and getting the II* Heritage listing
*Listed Building consent for our plans
* Successfully running the Community Crossroads for 6 years
*Support from the Victorian Society, The Theatres Trust, Association of Preservation Trusts, The Architectural Heritage Fund, The RSA, and the National Trust
*Having 2500 members
…. we have been consistently marginalised, ignored and shut out by Swindon Borough Council; even to the point where individual Trustee’s have been publically and privately insulted and belittled.
The Council’s “powers” in this are not to be underestimated. They can compulsory purchase the building and transfer it to a Development Trust (which the NMIPT is), through the Asset Transfer Scheme for very little or even no cost to the local taxpayer. It is high time that SBC pulled its collective head out of the sand and worked constructively with the WHOLE community to save one of Swindon’s most prominent, historical and well known buildings.