Sunday, 27 January 2013

Be There or Be [Without A] Square

I’m going to get a bit architectural here, so bear with me. A building technique that had its roots in the middle ages but came into its own in Tudor times lies behind a Public Enquiry taking place in Shrewsbury this coming Tuesday.  In its day, this technique was a means of increasing a building’s size, reducing its tax bill and providing a more efficient way of spanning floor joists, all without impacting detrimentally on its surroundings. Right here and now, however, in our very own 21st century Shrewsbury, that building technique is in danger of becoming something in the nature of a land-grab device.

In case you’re wondering, I’m talking about Tudor overhangs. Here in Shrewsbury we have some of the finest examples of them in the UK.  If you Google the words ‘overhang’ and ‘Tudor’, almost the first image to come up is Henry Tudor House on Wyle Cop.  Add to that Bear Steps, the Costa Coffeehouse building. Grope Lane, The King’s Head in the Mardol. Ireland’s Mansion. Rowley’s House, and other buildings from almost every street in Shrewsbury, you’ll see that the whole town contains examples of Tudor overhangs.  In large part, they define Shrewsbury’s character.

Back in the 1960s and early 70s, when developers sought planning consent for new buildings, they attempted to mirror in concrete the architectural style of the rest of the town - including the Tudor overhang. In a town of the historical importance of Shrewsbury it was vital that, in order not to dominate, new buildings strove to fit in with the architecture for which the town was famous. Today for example, standing at the St Julian’s Church end of the High Street, looking towards the Square, you’ll see that not every building is old but that almost every building, old or new alike, has some form of matching overhang.  Its like an echo running down the street. There may be people who don’t like some of our modern buildings, but undeniably there’s been an attempt at harmony.

Not for much longer, however, if the owners of one of those buildings has their way.

The building in question is Princess House – a building which owes very little to its surroundings other than its overhang, which starts on the High Street, runs down the side of the Square and runs along the back on Princess Street.  That’s over 1,000 square feet of overhang, or about 97 square metres in the Square alone, and around two thirds of that again if the overhangs on Princess Street and the High Street are included too.

These figures are important because what’s being proposed  is that the public highway beneath that massive footage of overhang - specifically in the Square where at ground floor level the building houses shops - should be stopped up allowing Princess House to be built out, increasing its size to the extent of the overhang and depriving the town of a huge amount of public thoroughfare.  

Is this what we want? This is where the ‘my’ in My Tonight From Shrewsbury comes into its own.  This is what I think – and, no, it’s not what I want.  The Square is the heart of our town.  It houses thriving markets packed with stalls and shoppers, holiday activities and carol concerts. I’ve been to World Music Day in the Square, and watched a full-scale opera. Everything from morris dancing to brass band concerts takes place in the Square, along with open-air exhibitions, New Year celebrations and the switching on of Christmas lights. And the Square gets crowded on these occasions - so crowded that a number of years ago the council closed it to vehicular access to give pedestrian priority. 

Not only that, but the Square has been at the heart of Shrewsbury town life for hundreds of years, and it houses some of the town’s most iconic buildings. The axis formed by the Music Hall [due to be opened later this year as the town’s new multi-million pound museum] the Old Market Hall and the Robert Clive statue, with a backdrop of fine Tudor buildings and Georgian/Victorian facades [of such quality that they were used in the Dickens ‘Christmas Carol film] proclaim that the Square is the town’s premier civic space.  Already Princess House has intruded into that space with three storeys of overhang.  Now it wants to protrude even more.   

Hardly surprising then that the proposed change to the character of the square isn’t universally popular - but there’s a potentially even more worrying issue. If Princess House is allowed to stop up the land beneath its overhang and turn it into shops, then the owners of every overhang in town might start looking to their own perceived rights to extra floor space.  And if they were to be successful in claiming precedence, pavements could disappear and buildings change their character all over town.  Maybe it sounds melodramatic to say that Shrewsbury’s essential character would be in danger of destruction, but there’s no doubt that the delicate balance between old and new could be lost.

The Public Enquiry set up by the Secretary of State - which will include opportunities for those who come prepared to speak - will be kicking off at the Shirehall from 10.00am onwards this coming Tuesday, and carrying on until Wednesday, looking specifically into the validity of stopping up the public highway beneath Princess House, and its impact on the Square and overlooking streets. That the Secretary of State deems this to be necessary is a measure of the importance of the issue.  Arguments against the proposal have been made in writing by Shrewsbury Town Council, Shops in the Loop, the Civic Society and the Town Centre Residents Association. There may well be many others.  Those are just the ones I know about.

I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that what  happens at this Public Enquiry is important for our lovely little town. My own view is that there’s a matter of principle here. There should be no further loss of space in the public realm. To this end - and in order for the Inspector to understand the situation and make a fair and sensible judgment - the greater the number of those who manage to attend for any part of Tuesday or Wednesday, to show how much they value their town square, the better. It really could be one of those occasions when just being there makes the difference.

I’ll be there.  The way I see it, it’s a case of ‘be there or be without a Square’.  But if you can’t be there, I’ll tell you all about it afterwards. 



  1. Enjoying these blogs Pauline! Hope you confound the greedy developers ...

  2. Thank you Madwippitt, it'll be interesting to see what the next few days throw up. Hopefully I'll have something up about it by the end of the week.