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Did Sheffield Council mislead campaigners about the demolition of a historic city centre building?

A photo obtained by Now Then raises new questions about the “spontaneous” collapse of the Market Tavern.

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The remnants of the building on 19 January.

Now Then.

Photos obtained exclusively by Now Then appear to support claims by heritage campaigners that they may have been misled by Sheffield City Council (SCC) about the collapse of a historic building in the Castlegate area.

The controversy relates to the former Market Tavern on Exchange Street, which was built in 1914 but which had stood empty since 2006 when it closed as a pub, and was acquired by the city council.

On 20 December last year, the council issued a statement saying that during work to remove asbestos officers had found that the building's chimneys were "structurally unstable", and that the whole building required full demolition.

Campaign group Hallamshire Historic Buildings (HHBS), which has long campaigned to preserve Sheffield's architectural heritage, objected to this plan, saying that the "landmark building in the heart of Castlegate" deserved saving.

On 9 January this year, councillors and council officers met with HHBS and members of the Castlegate Partnership, who are working on regenerating the wider area, to inform them that the building would be torn down the following day.

At this meeting, members of HHBS asked for a delay in demolition work to give them time to find external help to save the building. Council officers then agreed not to start demolition work until at least midday on 10 January.

Offer of help

On the morning of 10 January, HHBS secured an offer from national conservation campaign SAVE Britain's Heritage to carry out a free assessment of the decaying building and the feasibility of restoring it.

Now Then has confirmed that this offer was passed on to the relevant council officer, in-person via a councillor, by HHBS at 11:30am on 10 January – thirty minutes before the agreed deadline.

According to HHBS, council officers then emailed SAVE Britain's Heritage to accept their offer of a free assessment, on the condition that demolition work on the building would be paused, at 9:10pm that evening.

Despite this promise, when campaigners saw the building the next day, they say the entire upper storey had been reduced to a pile of rubble. Campaigners expressed their shock and sadness at the sudden collapse of the building, adding that it was "tragic... that such a shambles could occur in the name of regeneration."

Days later, a council spokesperson told BBC local democracy reporter Roland Sebestyen that "the pub's old turret structure had fallen back into the building, due to its fragility" sometime on 10 January – the day the offer of help was made and accepted.

But Now Then has since obtained a photo, taken at 9:01am on the morning of 11 January, which shows workmen on scaffolding around the building in the first hour of light after the night in which the council claim the building's turret "spontaneously" collapsed.

Market tavern demolition

The photo obtained by Now Then, taken at 09:01am on 11 January.

The photo also appears to show that the entire second storey of the building – which goes far beyond the front-facing turret structure that SCC had said collapsed by itself – had already been removed at the time it was taken.

In a blog post, HHBS wrote that "the Council now says that, in the few hours after that offer was received and accepted, the whole upper storey and roof structure of the building fell down by itself, very neatly, with all the rubble falling back into the building." SCC has not responded to these claims by time of publication.

A series of unfortunate events

This means that, for SCC’s version of events to be true, the turret must have collapsed by itself, been discovered by staff, workmen called to the site, and the entire second storey of the building carefully dismantled, between 9:10pm on Wednesday evening (when they accepted the offer from SAVE, which suggests that the turrets hadn’t collapsed at that point) and 9:01am on Thursday morning, when the photo was taken.

When Now Then contacted SCC on 23 January to ask how this could have happened, we were told that demolition was paused on 9 January after the offer from SAVE Britain’s Heritage was accepted, and continues to be paused.

When we visited the former site of the building 30 minutes later, we found that this was incorrect – active demolition of the building appeared to still be in progress, and a large portion of the building, including the entire historic facade, had already gone (the council did not respond to questions about this sequence of events in time for publication of the story).

“The building withstood gales a few weeks ago yet, we are being asked to believe that just as a potential lifeline for the building was found, it spontaneously began to fall down by itself,” a spokesperson for HHBS told Now Then.

“This action by the council highlights the necessity of groups like Hallamshire Historic Buildings. The council shouts its commitment to its Heritage Strategy on billboards throughout the city and in their various pamphlets and leaflets, but the reality is different.”

The group say that the building, which was bought by the council using £457,000 of public money in 2006, could have been a successful component of plans to regenerate the Castle Market site, but that it was mismanaged and left to decline.

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Demolition work on the building appears to be almost complete on 23 January 2024.

Now Then.

“There appears to have been no plan for its conservation, when simply keeping the rain out could have saved the building,” said the spokesperson. “The council promised to provide the protection of a Conservation Area, but changed their mind at the last minute, closing another door to potential funding.”

“They have systematically reduced their Conservation Officer staff from four to one, and had no conservation-accredited structural engineer to call on when problems struck. They say they spent days looking for solutions, but don't seem to have thought of reaching for expertise outside the council – another thing which done earlier might have saved the building.”

Culture change

The razing of the hundred-year-old Market Tavern means there is now even less of Sheffield’s historic fabric at the Castlegate site, following the demolition of the polarising yet architecturally notable Castle Market building in 2015.

Three years ago, a proposed Castlegate Conservation Area that could have offered some level of legal protection to the Market Tavern was mysteriously cancelled, with would-be attendees of a consultation session being informed of the change of plan by a note pinned to the door.

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Plans for the redeveloped Castlegate site.

Sheffield City Council.

Work is expected to start imminently on plans to turn the sprawling site, which the Market Tavern backed onto, into a new public park. Groups including the Sheaf and Porter Rivers Trust say even these plans don’t go far enough to preserve the city’s heritage, and have called for the entire section of the River Sheaf that runs through the site to be deculverted.

Despite promises, public money and the stated intention to retain and refurbish, the Market Tavern fell into ruin during the eighteen years it was under council care. Campaigners will fear the same fate awaits other parts of the city’s heritage without a serious culture change.

by Sam Gregory (he/him)

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