A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.
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TOWN PLANNING AND THE BUILT ENVIRONMENT, 1945-74
The town-planning proposals made by Chester immediately after the Second World War extended beyond the county borough's boundaries, but in 1947 legislation made the county council the planning authority for the rural areas and outer suburbs, confining the city's responsibilities within its own boundaries. After that the city could prepare a development plan only for the central clearance area, approved by the government in 1952. (fn. 1) In 1957, with government approval, the county drew up plans for a green belt, roughly following the line of the projected outer ringroad. The intention was to restrict further building in rural areas and to prevent urban sprawl from spreading all the way to Ellesmere Port, but in Chester it was seen as designed to prevent a successful submission for a borough extension. (fn. 2) Despite protests that the green belt had been drawn too tightly, (fn. 3) together with the shortage of building land and the continuing difficulty of balancing economic growth with environmental considerations, the planning restrictions in fact proved to be the key to prosperity. City centre shops clearly attracted visitors in part because of their historic environment, and conservation was vital to their success. The main developments in planning, rebuilding, and conservation did not really begin until after 1960, but by 1974 the appearance of much of the city centre within and just beyond the walls had changed radically, while new suburbs had spread far to the west and north of the older built-up area.
Traffic and Road Planning. A major element in the council's plans was the completion of inner and outer ring-roads, since it was acknowledged that the solution of the traffic problem would determine whether Chester remained a regional centre. (fn. 4) The outer ring-road remained incomplete, notably south of the city, where a new bridge across the Dee was urgently needed. The inner ring-road had its origins in the widening of Little St. John Street in 1938. In 1962, after abandoning a proposal to widen Northgate Street, (fn. 5) the council adopted a scheme which connected Little St. John Street, Pepper Street, and Grosvenor Street to a new roundabout north of the castle and then ran north along a widened Nicholas Street and Linenhall Street, to swing eastwards outside the walls on an elevated viaduct and then descend southwards across the site of the cattle market at the Gorse Stacks to join Foregate Street at the junction with City Road. Although the planned route connected with Grosvenor Bridge, which already took far too much traffic, the government endorsed the scheme and paid three quarters of its construction costs of £1.2 million. (fn. 6) The northwestern section was opened in 1966, (fn. 7) and the entire road had been completed by 1972. Although it improved traffic flow, its impact on the environment caused concern. The northern city wall was breached to make the austere St. Martin's Gate, designed by the city engineer and surveyor, A. H. F. Jiggens, in consultation with G. Grenfell Baines and with approval from the Royal Fine Arts Commission. (fn. 8) St. Martin's church was sacrificed, along with Georgian houses on the east side of Nicholas Street, and Egerton House on Upper Northgate Street, regarded by one observer as among the city's best Georgian buildings. (fn. 9) In addition the viaduct was thought obtrusive, (fn. 10) the way in which the new road separated the city centre from the Dee was widely condemned, and there were doubts about the impact of the concrete multi-storey car parks built as part of the scheme. (fn. 11) The removal of the cattle market from the Gorse Stacks to a new site at Sealand Road in 1970, however, was a distinct environmental improvement, as the movement of cattle between it and the railway station had previously held up traffic, inconvenienced pedestrians, and discouraged tourists. (fn. 12)
An extensive one-way system within the city had been planned in 1950 but was opposed by traders who feared that it would affect sales. A very limited scheme, in Foregate Street alone, was begun in 1966. (fn. 13) With the inner ring-road and car parks in place, further one-way routes were introduced in 1971, (fn. 14) and vehicular access to the central streets around the Cross was restricted from 1972-3. (fn. 15)
City Centre Redevelopment. Immediately west of the town hall was a large tract of derelict land from which substandard housing had been cleared in the 1930s. In 1945 the city engineer and surveyor, Charles Greenwood, presented a redevelopment plan which attempted to reconcile economic and cultural considerations. As well as council offices and a replacement for the Victorian public market, which no longer complied with hygiene regulations, the plan included a civic centre with a new central library, a museum and art gallery, and a concert hall. A scheme based on Greenwood's plan was approved by the government in 1952 but not put into effect. (fn. 16) In 1958 the council added a bus exchange to its requirements, (fn. 17) and in 1960 invited private developers to submit schemes. The brief was for an extension to the town hall, a general market with associated car parks, and sites for private development. The council appointed G. Grenfell Baines as its planning consultant, and in 1961, on his recommendation that it was 'sound and imaginative town planning expressed in good modern architecture', accepted a scheme, the Forum, by Michael Lyell & Associates. (fn. 18) Although the city, which owned the land, was freed from the costs of development, it ceded the bulk of the profits to private enterprise. (fn. 19) The Forum was closely associated with the inner ring-road, which was planned to run along the western edge of the site and from which car parking under the market hall, and the new bus station, were reached.
Grenfell Baines produced planning guidelines for the whole city centre in 1964, (fn. 20) but the first phase of Lyell's scheme, the market hall, was delayed until 1967 because of archaeological work. (fn. 21) Only the market hall retained the boxy design of Lyell's original scheme; the final phase, which included council offices and a shopping mall and was delayed by excavation until 1969-72, was characterized by the Brutalist brickclad forms made fashionable in the early 1960s by the architect James Stirling. It had council offices boldly cantilevered over the Northgate Street entrance to the shopping mall, and was widely hated from the start. (fn. 22) Office blocks were built speculatively near by, north of Hunter Street, but no attempt was made to integrate them with the Forum.
Multi-level planning similar to the Forum's was used by the Grosvenor-Laing property company for the Grosvenor Centre on 3½ acres owned by the Grosvenor estate between Bridge Street, Eastgate Street, Pepper Street, and Newgate Street. The last was blocked by the multi-storey car park and department store at the centre of the scheme. The design of 1963, by Sir Percy Thomas and Son, was an early example of the tendency in historic towns to hide bulky new shopping centres behind existing buildings. It left the Rows almost intact, including a new block along Eastgate Street, separately designed Row-fashion by Gordon Jeeves in 1962 for Central & District Properties. (fn. 23) The new buildings were exposed only to the rear, where a multi-storey car park faced the Newgate and Newgate Street, and on Pepper Street, which received a long concrete-clad façade. The scheme incorporated the early 20th-century St. Michael's Row and the Grosvenor Hotel, which was lavishly refurbished and extended, while providing 60 new shops, as well as office and conference facilities. It took only two years to complete, compared with the 12-year gestation of the Forum, and when opened in 1964, it was estimated that it would contribute £100,000 to the rates. (fn. 24) On a smaller scale but similar in planning approach was Mercia Square (1970) in Frodsham Street.
A handful of relatively small, cautiously modern commercial buildings invaded sensitive sites, for example that built in 1963 in Northgate Street, (fn. 25) and another of higher quality in Watergate Street. The most prominently sited and uncompromisingly modern new building was the eight-storeyed county police headquarters, designed in 1964 by the county architect, Edgar Taberner, for a site dominating the entrance to the city from the Grosvenor Bridge, formerly occupied by the militia barracks. (fn. 26)
By the mid 1960s the area within the walls was virtually devoid of residents and consequently free of serious smoke pollution. To enliven the centre, which at night was virtually empty and prey to vandals, (fn. 27) planners began to advocate the provision of new residential accommodation. (fn. 28) Depopulation entailed a reorganization of the city's Anglican parishes and the redundancy of several city churches in 1972. (fn. 29) The Methodists rationalized their circuits in 1963 and closed city-centre chapels in Hunter Street and George Street in 1967 and 1970. Among the other main denominations, the Congregationalists did not rebuild their chapel in Queen Street after it was destroyed by fire in 1963, and left the Upper Northgate Street chapel in 1967, while the Baptists abandoned Grosvenor Park Road in 1974. The Unitarians replaced the Matthew Henry chapel, a victim of the inner-city redevelopment scheme in 1962, with a chapel in Blacon. All the main denominations and many of the smaller groups, however, retained a presence in the city centre in 1974. (fn. 30)
In 1962 the Civic Trust, founded in 1959 to heighten public awareness of Chester's character, history, and civic design, initiated a plan to improve the appearance of the main streets. Owners and traders were persuaded to finance the refurbishment of their properties to an overall design, and to remove or replace unsightly signs. The council paid the fees of an architect to prepare the design and oversee its execution. In 1966 the first scheme, for Bridge Street, was judged a success, and Eastgate Street then received similar treatment. (fn. 31) The radical transformation of the city centre during the 1960s, however, exposed the conflict between growth and environmental quality, and heightened tensions between those who opposed change and those who sought it. (fn. 32)
Conservation. Many Cestrians considered the historic city to be essentially medieval, which is perhaps why they had countenanced the loss of Georgian and Victorian buildings and continued to prefer a fake half-timbered version of the Domestic Revival style. The council did little to preserve Chester's genuine historic buildings, and by the 1940s much of the Rows was in very poor repair, and Lower Bridge Street could be described as 'verging on a slum'. (fn. 33) In 1955 property in Watergate Street, bought by the council to protect it, was destroyed on the grounds that it had deteriorated beyond repair. (fn. 34) The Gap, as it became known, was a constant embarrassment to the council, which organized a competition for an infill design in 1963, won by Herbert J. Rowse & Harker; (fn. 35) their block of shops and offices, designed as a Row in a contemporary idiom with flat-roofed cantilevered bays and exposed concrete, remained unfinished until the late 1960s. (fn. 36) Successive councils had proved unwilling to spend money on conservation. (fn. 37) In 1959, for example, the corporation announced that the Blue Bell Inn in Northgate Street was too expensive to repair and would be pulled down. The ensuing campaign ended when the government refused to permit demolition, and the corporation had to spend £2,500 on preserving the building. (fn. 38)
By 1966 opinion was changing; the council was persuaded to abandon plans to destroy Georgian houses in Queen Street, (fn. 39) and agreed to renovate the Nine Houses in Park Street rather than demolish them. (fn. 40) Even so, it is doubtful whether conservation on a serious scale could have begun without extensive help from national funds. (fn. 41) In 1966 Richard Crossman, minister of housing and local government, commissioned a pilot study of four towns of special historic importance, including Chester, to elicit what special problems such places faced in relation to their modern development. The study led to the formulation of a national policy on conservation which had extremely important consequences for many historic towns and cities. (fn. 42) The report of Chester's consultant, Donald Insall, was a watershed in the history of conservation in the city. The content and status of his report, with the weight of central government behind it, changed the council's attitude. The crucial factor was the availability of central government funds for conservation. The Insall Report dealt with all aspects of town planning, from traffic management to tree-planting, in relation to the city's historic fabric. It asserted that the restoration of old buildings could enhance both their own value and that of the whole city centre, and provided a realistically costed 15-year programme which identified the buildings most in need of saving. (fn. 43) The council's director of technical services, Cyril Morris, put many of Insall's recommendations into effect immediately. In 1969 a conservation area of 200 acres was declared, covering the city within the walls, the Roodee, and a section of the river frontage. The council began an exemplary policy of acquiring, restoring, and selling buildings, and encouraged private owners, developers, and architects to undertake similar renovation work, backed by council and government grants. A conservation officer was employed to liaise with local residents, for instance in King Street, where individual owners rehabilitated their houses. A new conservation rate of 1d. in the pound, at the time unique in English cities, was expected to raise £30,000 a year for a conservation fund. (fn. 44) In 1970 the council appointed Insall and Associates as its conservation consultants, in which role they continued until 1987; they instituted a phased programme and reported on progress in 1976 and 1986. (fn. 45)
Three of the thirteen separate areas of individual character mapped by Insall and Associates were identified as action areas. The first to be the subject of detailed plans by the consultants was the Bridgegate area in 1970, followed by Watergate Street in 1973. The Bridgegate plan was approved in 1973, (fn. 46) and work financed equally by local and central government was completed in 1980. It began with the renovation of older buildings on the west side of Lower Bridge Street such as Shipgate House and Gamul House, and of terraces in the adjoining Gamul Place, which had been neglected by their owner, the county council. Sympathetically designed residential units were built to replace low-grade property and to fill empty sites. After 1974 the Falcon Inn at the top end of Lower Bridge Street was saved as a public house by a small charitable trust set up for the purpose, and new uses were found for three redundant churches in the area, St. Michael, St. Olave, and St. Mary. An empty building in Duke Street became the county record office. (fn. 47)
Archaeology. Before the late 1960s Chester also neglected the archaeological record. The work of Professor Robert Newstead (d. 1947) was largely unrecognized. (fn. 48) Such indifference ignored the potential contribution of the excavated archaeology to the tourist trade. Excavation by Ian Richmond in the 1940s in the central clearance area revealed the Roman army's headquarters building in Goss Street and the ditch fronting the Roman west wall in Princess Street. (fn. 49) In the 1960s redevelopment of the city centre provided a unique opportunity to discover more of the Roman fortress. The excavations, which were funded by the government and the corporation, revealed the plan of a unique elliptical building and Roman floors on the Forum site, and the full extent of the bathhouse, together with part of a barrack block, under the Grosvenor Centre. The destruction of the remains of the baths, still of great size and a high degree of preservation, provoked much controversy. (fn. 50)
The walls were the city's most potent tourist attraction. (fn. 51) Despite proposals by Greenwood in 1945 and Grenfell Baines in 1964, the council failed to ensure that their surroundings were cleared and landscaped. Their very survival was always precarious, for the friable stone of which they were built made them expensive to conserve and repair. Only after the Insall Report of 1968 were the walkways even cleaned efficiently. (fn. 52)
The greatest test of the council's commitment to uncovering Chester's ancient history was its attitude to the Roman amphitheatre. In 1949 the Ministry of Works offered to excavate it if given guardianship. (fn. 53) The council agreed, and work began in 1960. Since Dee House remained in private hands, only the section already owned by the city and the Archaeological Society could be excavated. The work proceeded slowly throughout the 1960s, partly because of difficulty in shoring up the adjoining higher ground. When it was completed in 1971, there was much disappointment among the general public that there was little to see. By 1974, the improvement committee, however, was prepared to state publicly that the amphitheatre was 'one of the greatest unrealized assets in the city', (fn. 54) but its future remained a matter of debate in 2000. Little interest was taken in any aspects of Chester's archaeology other than the Roman period. (fn. 55)