A tale of the two halls: Facilities for the people?

HUNTINGDON Town Hall, which dates from 1745, is just one of 2,230 listed buildings in the district – but it is one of the few that will cost more than £1million to put it into proper order. St Ives s Corn Exchange is another – but that s for another page.

HUNTINGDON Town Hall, which dates from 1745, is just one of 2,230 listed buildings in the district - but it is one of the few that will cost more than £1million to put it into proper order.

St Ives's Corn Exchange is another - but that's for another page.

Estimates vary between £1million and £1.5million just for essential repairs to the town hall. Then there will be millions more to spend to give the building the sort of vibrant use planners want it to have at the heart of the town's community.

Even when the town hall is restored to the condition it should be in, it will cost around £50,000 a year to keep the fabric in proper shape, the district council's operations director Malcolm Sharp told The Hunts Post.

The building's future will be the focus of intense negotiations over the next 12 months or so - to decide who foots these bills.

"The responsibility for a listed building lies with the owner," Mr Sharp said. "In this case, we believe we own the freehold in trust for the people of Huntingdon."

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But a 999-year lease on the building, signed in the 1840s, passed to HM Courts Service in April 2005.

With courts administrators having moved out last year and the magistrates due to move to the new combined justice centre on the corner of George Street and the ring road in the autumn, the Government will be anxious to get out of that lease for good. The negotiation is about how much money the Council Tax payers of Huntingdonshire will get for relieving the Lord Chancellor of that burden.

The town hall has serious form as a courthouse, having also been home to Huntingdonshire Assizes, which were replaced by the Crown Court in the late 1960s. So, when the building is empty, English Heritage is almost certain to insist that at least one of the two ground-floor courts is retained for posterity and even enhanced. This could limit its attractiveness to a commercial tenant.

The top floor, which includes what was the town's assembly room, should be retained for that purpose, Mr Sharp believes. But how it is used and what the rest of the space is turned over to may emerge sooner rather than later.

Once the Courts Service is gone, HDC will want some income from the building to offset the maintenance costs. But so far, there is no sign of a serious bid.

One thing is certain. The town hall will need a lift to meet the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act before it is put to a new use or uses. Planners have not ruled out an external glass lift. With the whole structure - not just the shell - covered by the Grade II listing, installing a lift anywhere, inside or out, is sure to involve damage to some of the building's fabric.

"Within the spirit of the original trust at least part of the building needs to continue as a community resource," Mr Sharp said. "There's a real challenge to find what the best use is for the people of Huntingdon and to make it viable. There could be a new trust that could seek Lottery funding.

"Whatever happens, we shall need a dowry for the future."

But there is always a conflict between spending the council's resources on preserving the district's rich built heritage - at least those parts that councils own - and funding public services. As St Ives Town Council is acutely aware with the Corn Exchange.

Mr Sharp's other concern is the future of Hinchingbrooke House, now owned by the Hinchingbrooke Trust, supported in part by Cambridgeshire County Council and used by the school for its sixth form.

It was home to four generations of the Cromwell family, up to the time of the Lord Protector himself, before becoming the family home of the Montagus - Earls of Sandwich - from the 17th century until the 1960s.

Parts of the grounds are on the district council's list of historic structures most seriously at risk of being lost to posterity because of structural failure or collapse.

Then there's the 19th century St Ives Corn Exchange, on which Mr Sharp is reluctant to be drawn, but he conceded: "It's not just that it's an old building. It's also perceived to be a community asset. But it has been so altered that there's relatively little of true value behind the facade. You could do a lot behind that, but in planning terms it has to be compatible with the town centre location.

"It's important that what a community needs is determined locally. Ultimately it relates to resources and what the community decides. But whatever use it's put to will have to respect the front of the building."

St Ives Town Council will note that as it tries to sell it without planning consent.