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, 1974-2000
Traffic. Perhaps the greatest of Chester's difficulties in balancing economic development against environmental damage was the traffic generated by the city's success as a commercial, business, and tourist centre. (fn. 1) Much through traffic was diverted round the city by the southerly bypass opened in 1977 and a more effective easterly bypass in the early 1990s. (fn. 2) The outstanding part of the complete ring-road which had been demanded since the 1920s was a western bypass linked to a further bridge over the Dee, but only the sections from Liverpool Road to Sealand Road (Countess Way and the Chester Western Bypass) had been built by 2000, leaving the western stretch of the inner ring-road and the Grosvenor Bridge frequently congested.
It was still feared in the 1990s that more Draconian measures to restrict vehicular access to the city centre would damage the commerce on which its prosperity depended. (fn. 3) Pedestrianization of the central streets was phased in between 1982 and 1990, closing Northgate, Eastgate, St. Werburgh, Bridge, and Watergate Streets, and the Cross, except for access. The completion in 1983 of a new bus exchange between Hunter Street and Princess Street, for Chester City Transport buses, and the provision of the Delamere Street bus station, for long-distance services, had already liberated Town Hall Square from traffic and allowed the area in front of the town hall and the new library to be paved. Park-andride schemes were introduced in the late 1980s, large car parks being sited on the outskirts of the city.
Conservation and Renewal in the City Centre. The district council's planning policies after 1974 continued to recognize the value of Chester's architectural inheritance and to carry out the programmes started as a result of the Insall Report of 1968. (fn. 4) By 1975, European Architectural Heritage Year, work was sufficiently advanced for Chester to be chosen as one of four official British projects. (fn. 5) The city centre became a magnet for those studying conservation methods and continued to win European prizes, notably the Europa Nostra silver medal in 1983 and 1989. (fn. 6)
The city council's conservation fund was allowed to run down in the later 1970s but was reinstated in real terms in the 1980s, when the annual budget was never less than £200,000, matched from government funds. There was also support from the European Regional Development Fund. By 1986 over 600 buildings had been renovated and restored to use, including the Dutch Houses in Bridge Street and Bishop Lloyd's House. Many environmental improvements had also been made, for example to the river bank and the cathedral precinct. (fn. 7) The renovation of Godstall Lane in 1980 and the Eastgate Street Row project of 1991-3, the latter designed by the Biggins Sargent Partnership for the corner of Eastgate Street and Northgate Street, revived a run-down and underused area immediately next to the Cross. (fn. 8)
The council's view in the 1990s was that there was still scope for renewal and redevelopment within the central area of Chester, (fn. 9) but its planning regulations also acknowledged that new building could be environmentally damaging. Where possible, older buildings were adapted to new uses and new buildings were concealed by existing façades. Among the most successful examples was the new central library of 1981-4, hidden by the county architect behind the decorative brick and terracotta front of the former Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works of 1913-14. (fn. 10) Some buildings were reproduced exactly, such as the house in Lower Bridge Street fronting Heritage Court, a development of offices designed by Forbes Bramble Associates in 1989-91 to resemble early 19th-century houses. (fn. 11) Similar techniques were less successful along Foregate Street, where restored or poorly reproduced Georgian fronts bore no relation to what lay behind. On the rim of the historic city centre, industrial buildings along the canal were converted into offices, hotels, and bars.
Both Cestrians and planners were particularly sensitive about buildings near the cathedral and town hall. The appearance of the Forum Centre was viewed with dismay, and in 1993 it was called 'perhaps the worst piece of modern urban planning in the centre of any historic city in England'. (fn. 12) In 1993-5 the cantilevered upper storeys were cut back, and a new facade, more subdued in colour and post-modern classical in style, was applied by Leslie Jones. (fn. 13) The refurbishment was castigated as 'superficial, facadist and motivated more by commercial considerations than by civic pride', a wasted opportunity to revive what should have been Chester's civic and cultural heart. (fn. 14) More successful smaller-scale commercial work included James Brotherhood and Associates' Rufus Court (1991), where offices entered from the city walls were placed above shops reached from Abbey Green. (fn. 15)
Chester's black-and-white style was echoed in many buildings of the late 20th century, weakly stylized, for example, on the oversized Moat House Hotel and car park with which the architects Parry, Boardman, and Morris extended the Forum development over Trinity Street to St. Martin's Way (the inner ring-road). (fn. 16) The city's 19th-century Domestic Revival style in red brick was also resurrected, as, for instance, in the intricate brick gables of the small precinct off Frodsham Street which replaced Mercia Square, demolished in 1989-90. The most blatant piece of scene-setting, in the spirit of late Victorian Chester but inspired by schemes such as the Riverside development at Richmond (Surr.), was Grosvenor Court, a courtyard development of openplan offices planted on an unpropitious island site at the junction of the inner ring-road and the Bars. Though of one date (1989) and with one designer and developer, the Stannanought Partnership, the group was made to look as if had evolved, by being disguised as 18th-century terraced houses and 19thcentury Grosvenor estate buildings. (fn. 17)
Rebuilding along the inner ring-road gave rise during the 1970s and early 1980s to such bulky structures as the Northgate Arena and office blocks along Pepper Street, designed with the dark brick and heavy rooflines then fashionable, giving them undeserved prominence in the townscape. In the late 1980s and 1990s differently styled but equally prominent buildings appeared, such as the offices for North West Securities (later Capital Bank) close to the railway station off City Road.
Archaeology. The preservation of the city walls exemplified the way in which conservation was linked to archaeology, and it was not accidental that from the late 1960s the Department of the Environment supported both conservation and archaeological investigations. An archaeological unit was set up in 1972 at the Grosvenor Museum and became a separate service run by the city council in 1989. Under the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act the development of sites designated as being of archaeological importance came under the control of local authorities and could be investigated and recorded ahead of any redevelopment. Significant finds from the Roman period were thus made at Abbey Green (defences, kitchens, and centurions' houses) and on the library and bus exchange site (a barracks and two other large buildings). Further investigation of the elliptical building under the Forum Centre did not reveal its purpose, but a publicly funded multidisciplinary study of the Rows confirmed their 13th-century origins. (fn. 18) Limited archaeological work was undertaken at the amphitheatre in 2000 as part of a plan to promote the site as a tourist attraction. (fn. 19)
Open Spaces. Planners thought Chester fortunate because it contained 'green wedges' separating the city from its suburbs and providing a landscape setting. The open spaces included the Roodee, Curzon Park golf course, Westminster Park, and the Meadows, but their extent was less than the norm for a city of Chester's population. Provision for organized games was adequate but unevenly distributed, being especially deficient in the large council estates at Lache and Blacon. (fn. 20) The importance of the river Dee and the canal both for the attractiveness of the urban environment and for recreation was recognized, but plans for enhancing them were curtailed by financial constraints, and few of Grenfell Baines's imaginative proposals of the early 1970s were put into effect. (fn. 21) The Meadows were neglected and little used because of poor drainage and access, though by the 1990s those features were seen as assets and plans were made to develop the area as a wetland habitat grazed by cattle. (fn. 22)