The foundation stone of St. John’s hall was laid on the 10th September, and three years later Penzance could boast the largest granite building in Britain. Today, it is still one of the world’s largest all-granite buildings. Over the years it has housed everything from the Police, Freemasons to a natural history museum.
Nowadays St. Johns Hall is used as an events & meeting space, public fares & starting point for the Mazey Day Parades. It houses Penzance Town Council, the Citizen’s advice bureau, Cornish Community Banking, the Penzance Farmers’ Market, the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall, and much more beyond.
All of this would appear to show that St John’s Hall is a vibrant and important building at the very heart of Penzance, but is this reflected in reality?
In researching this article, I was mortified to find that there is almost no information on the building at all. Yes, the foundation stone was laid on 10th September, but what year? No one seems to think that this sort of information is important.
It is anonymously listed on English Heritage;s listed buildings database as ‘PUBLIC BUILDINGS, ALVERTON ROAD‘, but no further information can be gleaned from that source.
A reference to St John’s Hall is mentioned in passing on Penlee House’s website, that indicates it was newly constructed in 1867.
Beyond this much, there is precious little I can tell you about the place. Perhaps it is not so dear to us as a community as I would like to think.
In an article in The Cornishman today, it is reported that – due to years of neglect – St John’s Hall requires £5.6 million spent on it to make it a viable new home for the Cornwall Council ‘One-Stop Shop’. This, it is claimed (probably not unreasonably) would have to be funded by the tax payer in a time when cuts are biting harder than ever.
The simplest solution is to sell the building off to a private developer, but with so much work required and the property market being as it stands today, it is unlikely to fetch its true value. If it were sold off, this would undoubtedly have a knock-on effect that the very people that called for its sale, are likely to find just as offensive: namely, what will the new owners do with the property?
The idea that it could be turned into some sort of ‘super-Wetherspoons’ or retirement flats is likely to be met with vocal disdain by the majority of Penzance residents, that judging from other recent decisions, are distinctly unwelcome. The likelihood that it could be developed into affordable housing – something that Penzance really needs – I don’t think is viable considering its protected status and the nature of its architecture.
This is not to say that a suitable private development is impossible, just that knowing what we do about other sites, it is extremely unlikely we would be presented with any but that which we already widely reject.
So it looks like Cornwall Council is lumped with a property that – whilst saleable – serves no useful or acceptable function to Penzance residents.
As a listed building, under S54 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, the owner can be required to carry out works as considered urgently necessary for the preservation of the buildings on site. If he fails to carry out such work, the Authority may undertake the work, with costs recoverable from the owner. As the ‘Authority’ here is the owner, they have a responsibility to themselves (i.e. the electorate) to maintain the property, so it looks like Cornwall Council will have to fork out the funds regardless of what they do with it under their remit. They might just as well bite the bullet and move the council offices from St Clare to St John’s and be done with it.
There are silver linings to this predicament. Firstly, the undersused St John’s Hall gets a new lease of life, and actively participates with the community in a way that has been lacking of late (the magistrates court vacated in 2011), and the council gets to sell or develop the land at St Clare.
Now I have no idea how much could be raised by selling St Clare – I doubt it would cover the costs of renovating and moving to St John’s – but there is an opportunity here for Penzance to confront some of its other problems.
However, we are faced with the same dilemma that confronts us with selling St John’s to the private market. There have been rumblings in the past that yet another large-scale retailer is interested in the location. I have also seen preliminary plans for a residential development (I can’t quite recall, but it may have had something to do with the idea that Penzance would get a university). Whilst another retail outlet is wholly out of of the question if we are to promote the town centre as a thriving retail hub for Pewnwith, there is some considerable need of affordable residential development.
Cornwall Council is keen to set a housing development strategy for some 38,000 homes throughout the county, but this has been met with considerable objection. Not so much NIMBYism, but location lies at its core all the same. It appears that both the number of houses penned for construction and the use of greenfield sites in their construction has been sloppily applied.
The housing waiting list stands at some 27,000 at the moment, but this may not be the best measure of how many homes are actually required. I make no judgement on that myself - it is an area I have not yet had time to research – but we should also consider the fact that there are currently some 29,000 empty homes in Cornwall with no plan to utilise them. This is perhaps Cornwall Council’s most alarming scandal (that and the 25% Council Tax Benefit poverty tax), and no one is doing anything about it
We have, over the years, seen a number of retail and commercial developments that have failed and fallen into disrepair. These brownfield sites are the most obvious locations for redevelopment, but I am unaware of any of the proposed sites that are even partially brownfield. If I had my way, any future commercial developments – especially from national chains with no economic links to Cornwall – should pay a ‘deposit’ before constructing their eyesores, only repayable after they have redeveloped the site to suit the needs of the community they have forsaken. If not, the deposit is ring-fenced to that very end.
So it would appear that there is no need for a commercial use, and a questionable requirement for a private residential development, what can St Clare bring to the community, that we really need?
Well, even if the numbers on the housing list diminish with the utilisation of empty homes, I fear there would still be a strong demand for affordable homes. I have read somewhere that the average Cornish worker has to save for nine years, just to scrape together a deposit on a property. Personally, I find this surprisingly rapid, and suspect that most people simply can’t so much as imagine getting a foot on the property ladder as prices stand.
Affordable housing for local people must be a priority. But that I shall approach in another article.
Going back to St John’s Hall, I firmly believe Cornwall Council has little choice but to renovate it and move the St Clare staff down there. Quite how this will be funded remains to be seen, but if the will is there, I am sure the means can be accommodated.
Do you have any knowledge of the history of St John’s Hall? I would love to keep an accurate and definitive page dedicated to it, seeing as no such page currently exists. Can you help?
What do you think of the plans for St John’s Hall and St Clare? What are your financial and planning concerns regarding its future?
Your thoughts are always welcome.