£30,000 heating bill for empty Shire Hall

Taxpayers have paid £30,000 to heat Chelmsford’s iconic Shire Hall since it was closed and left empty seven years ago.

The building, which has sat at the top of the high street for more than 200 years, used to be the city’s magistrates’ court until it was replaced with a new-build on New Street.

It has now emerged that low-level heating is being maintained to prevent damage from damp and mould during periods where external temperature falls below 12 degrees Celsius.

ECC-funded (Essex County Council) heating is likely to last throughout this winter as Aquila, the company behind Bond Street which has also clinched a £1m deal to develop Shire Hall, still has to reach an agreement as to what can be done with the Grade II-listed building.

Rumours have circulated for years over what the future holds for Shire Hall.

Plans were mooted to convert it into a restaurant and some have also campaigned to make it multi-purpose.

The building should be one of a number of 1600 property assets owned by ECC that bring in income.

But for seven years since 2012 it has sat empty while negotiations drag on over what changes can be made to it.

Chelmsford City Council leader Stephen Robinson confirmed that no planning applications have been submitted.

He said: “This is one of our criticisms of the county council.

“They have left not just Shire Hall but buildings like St Peter’s College over many years and it is costing them just to keep them mothballed which is a ridiculous waste of taxpayers’ money when they should be using the land more productively.

“It is a terrible waste of an iconic building in Chelmsford.”

ECC owns around 1,600 properties, of which 908 are freehold, 143 are leasehold and 544 are managed sites – largely schools with individual agreements with academy trusts.

Some usage generates a total income of £2.3m, though ECC has to spend £25.5m a year on running costs.

The full repair bill of the entire estate if it was done at once would come to around £150m.

Julie Young, deputy leader of the Labour group on ECC, said at a policy and scrutiny meeting on Tuesday (November 26): “I can think of a number of properties where there is a pretty poor story.

“Shire Hall for seven years heated for that time cost us £30,000. It’s not a great story is it?”

Earlier this year, ECC said the building initially required urgent repairs to the external fabric following an incident of falling masonry.

And while it was necessary to undertake significant survey and repair work in order to ensure that the building was safe, ECC says proper “due diligence” is needed over any proposals to reflect the building’s age.

A spokesperson for ECC said: “It is with the full support of our local partners that, while the planning process continues and work is ongoing to secure the future of Shire Hall, the heating is kept on at a very low level.

“This helps to ensure the listed building remains protected from damage caused by the cold and damp.

“Shire Hall is an important historical and community asset and the low cost to protect it – a total of £31,097.15 since April 2012 – is an investment in its future.

“We are continuing to work closely with partners, including Chelmsford City Council, to secure the future use of the building.

“We are currently entered into an agreement with Aquila Developments for a 250-year lease and they are currently developing plans for the building’s future use, subject to planning permission for appropriate uses.”

Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter