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Community group and Sheffield City Council at loggerheads over Victorian spa's future

Birley Spa Victorian Bath House in Hackenthorpe is Grade II listed and in desperate need of attention. Can campaigners and councillors agree on its future?

Birley Spa Built by Earl Manvers in 1843 to harness the spring water, which has been used since Roman times
John Poyser

Birley Spa Victorian Bath House is situated in the suburb of Hackenthorpe, Sheffield. The Grade II listed building, which dates back to the 1840s, has a naturally fed plunge pool that takes its water from a natural spring, thought to be rich in minerals and healing properties. It is the last remaining Victorian bath house in Yorkshire that is still situated in its original building.

For many years, the building has remained empty and unused but supporters have launched a petition to save the hidden gem. The group, Friends of Birley Spa, say that the council put the building up for sale in 2018 without any public consultation but, after local opposition, the sale was postponed. They say the council are being unhelpful and obstructive.

Because the building was put on the Assets of Community Value list in 2018, if it is put up for sale, the community has a six-month period to put together a bid for the property. The petition, which now has over 1,500 signatures, aims to keep the Spa on that list past its current expiry date of November 2023.

Councillor Karen McGowan said, “The Birley Ward councillors have been working with the Friends group for many years. Around 15 years ago, a previous group was able to obtain £250,000 from the Heritage Lottery. This was spent on bringing the building back into use. The public hardly ever visited the Spa house and the community never used it. The council did occasionally hold meetings there to try to support it but the damp smell was horrendous and it made it difficult to be there for any length of time. Bear in mind that this was after the Lottery funding and the building was in better condition than it is now.”

Birley Spa
Gregory Deryckère

The building has remained empty and unused for more than ten years and attempts to generate interest in it appear to have failed thus far. Councillor McGowan said, “In the past we have worked with other organisations to find a use for the building that will generate an income, such as nearby Birley Spa Primary School, and the Co-op Society. It’s now in such a condition with damp etc that it’s unsafe to enter without the appropriate personal protection equipment and the electricity can’t be used.”

The survival of the building relies entirely on it receiving considerable investment, which after years of cuts from central government, the council cannot afford. The current member of parliament for Sheffield South East, Clive Betts MP has also been involved in the discussions. He told Now Then that it was agreed previously, that the Friends group would put together a business plan for the building to try to access outside funding. The council offered to contribute £1000 towards the cost of the business plan and also suggested the group contact the city’s universities to see if their students could help with the project. It’s not clear whether they have contacted the university or managed to obtain such a business plan.

Karen McGowan said, “Without such a plan, it’s difficult to see where the group will get the funding from and the council cant simply hand over the building.”

The council, who have agreed to hand over the building if the supporters can provide a viable plan for it, is that without an income being generated, the council might be asked to provide further funds to restore the building. One idea that was floated was a part-commercial, part-community use, but the lack of parking for cars would make it difficult to use the space as a restaurant or wedding venue, although there is a bus stop at the entrance. Trying to expand for parking facilities would incur even greater cost. Another suggestion was that the upstairs of the building could be used for residential flats and the ground floor and surrounding grounds be used as a community space. Mr Betts says the group were unwilling to entertain that idea. Without a third party that both sides can trust to act as an intermediary, the deadlock looks set to continue, meanwhile the state of the building continues to decline.

If the Spa was in a more fashionable area of Sheffield, such as Ecclesall, investors would be queueing up to ensure it’s survival. Mr Betts said “I fully support the survival of the Spa. Particularly in working class areas, it’s really important that there are places of Heritage to enjoy. There are records of people travelling here for their holidays once upon a time.”

Mr Betts is keen to point out that he is not part of the council and is happy to act on behalf of his constituents as a middle-man, if the group are willing to compromise.

There could be a new ray of hope though. The Government have announced a new sum of money called The Community Ownership Fund, which allows community groups to bid to help acquire or preserve, and then maintain, community assets that are important to the community and otherwise would not exist. Birley Spa seems to fit the criteria if the parties can agree a clear plan.

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