Civic pride has a fall in derelict town halls

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THAT great symbol of civic pride, the Victorian Town Hall, is falling down. Increasing numbers of the grandiose buildings, once the focus of civic endeavour across the country, are standing derelict and facing demolition.

Major reasons for the empty town halls include the vast reform of local government in the 1960s and 1970s, which abolished and merged many smaller councils. As a result of streamlining, fewer councils required fewer buildings.

A building preservation trust set up by the Prince of Wales has expressed concern at the problem. "There is no need for a building to be demolished or an owner to hope to put up matchbox housing on the land," said Jane Miller of the Phoenix Trust. "Where appropriate, listed buildings should be converted to community use for people to work in or for recreation."

The fate of one of Northern Ireland's most historic town halls, Limavady, was sealed recently, when the council decided to demolish the listed, sandstone-fronted building. However, following a 2,500-strong petition protesting against the decision, the sandstone front will be incorporated into the new town hall.

Birmingham Town Hall, with its classical Roman temple designand seating for 1,500, has been a landmark in the city since its construction in the 1830s. But it closed in 1996 after the city's symphony orchestra moved out and remains shut this year, while Birmingham is host to the Eurovision song contest and the G8 summit of world leaders.

Several town halls across London are sitting vacant, all facing the fate of Kensington Town Hall, demolished in 1982 by Conservative councillors overnight in an attempt to beat a preservation order from the GLC.

"Local authorities are under growing pressure to be more efficient and use their assets properly. Civic architecture is at risk in London," said Philip Davies of English Heritage.

Shoreditch, a late 19th-century town hall, may be converted into an arts centre, while Holborn, a Flemish Baroque building, is likely to be converted into a hotel and Hampstead, a major landmark vacant for several years, is to be developed into a community and arts centre.

But town halls in Bethnal Green, Tottenham and Finsbury are thought vulnerable. "This is an issue that exercises us greatly," said Mr Davies. "These are all listed major works of late Victorian architecture, built for a specific purpose and embodying civic pride."

The trend of councils leaving their original grand buildings is inevitable, feels English Heritage's Frank Kelsall. "Many new local authorities decided they needed a new identity for a new borough. Old town halls are not so satisfactory. They don't have broadcast systems or disabled access."

Nonetheless, Mr Davies said: "They are architecturally distinctive and part of our cultural resource. We can't afford to demolish buildings with so much quality and energy tied up in them."