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Report finds wish to "appease" campaigners played role in council decision made "in error" to demolish historic Sheffield pub, as revealed by Now Then

Investigators found that “different understandings within the council” led to an email mistakenly ordering the demolition of a 100-year-old building – but the full report is not being made public.

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The remains of the Market Tavern on 19 January 2024.

Now Then.

A five-month investigation into why the public was misled over the “accidental” demolition of a historic Sheffield pub, as revealed by Now Then in February, has found that “different understandings within the council” led to the error.

In February, the Market Tavern in Castlegate was pulled down just minutes after campaigners informed the council that they had secured an external assessment of whether the building could be kept and refurbished from a national heritage organisation.

For weeks, Sheffield City Council maintained that the building had “spontaneously collapsed” of its own accord, and that the timing – mere hours after the offer of help was made – was a coincidence.

But video evidence obtained by Now Then showed that this was not true, and the council later admitted that an instruction to tear down the building was given to a contractor “in error”.

The council promised to commission an independent investigation into what went wrong which has produced its final report today (Thursday 11 July) – but only the executive summary is being made public, with the full report only available to council staff.

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The facade of the Market Tavern shortly before demolition work began in early January.

Hallamshire Historic Buildings.

Appease and thank you

The summary of the report states that there were “several fundamental communication breakdowns” which led to misinformation being released publicly, until this was uncovered by a Now Then investigation.

These errors revolve around a meeting between senior council staff and campaign group Hallamshire Historic Buildings (HHB) on 9 January, in which it was agreed that demolition of the building would be “paused” until midday on 10 January to give HHBS time to find a second opinion on the building.

“On reflection, several parties interviewed felt that this decision was made in the interests of wanting to appease interested groups as opposed in hindsight to being the best way forward,” the report states.

As the full report is not being made public, it’s not known which parties were interviewed as part of the investigation, but Now Then understands that Hallamshire Historic Buildings were not among them.

The next day, on 10 January, HHB managed to secure the offer of a free second opinion from a structural engineer at SAVE Britain’s Heritage, and this was passed on to Sean McClean, the senior council officer for regeneration and development, in-person at 11:30am (this is not mentioned in the summary of the report, but was confirmed by Now Then in February).

But just 23 minutes later, the investigation found that an email was sent by a different council officer – a “highly experienced structural engineer” – to the demolition contractor, asking them to recommence demolition of the building.

“The email sent at 11:53am on 10 January to the contractor to restart the demolishment just prior to the deadline set in motion a series of events that ultimately led to the investigation being commissioned,” reads the report.

“Upon review there did not appear to be any malicious intent underpinning the decision to recommence the work and the investigation was satisfied on 2 points relating to this.”

The structural engineer who sent this email at 11:53am is not named in the summary of the report, but the council confirmed to us that he is within the line management chain of, though not directly managed by, Sean McClean, who had been informed of the offer from SAVE Britain’s Heritage 23 minutes earlier.

The report’s assertion that there was no “malicious intent” in the email was on the basis that the unnamed officer was in an “appropriate position to have authorised the recommencement of the work”, and that the decision was made “in the interest of public safety”.

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Workers dismantling the Market Tavern on 19 January, nine days after the accidental order to demolish the building was made.

Now Then.

“Due to their machinery touching it”

The report then outlines how the offer of help from SAVE Britain’s Heritage was passed on to McLean again at 11:56am by email – three minutes after the structural engineer had authorised demolition to recommence.

“The email sent by a representative of the heritage group at 11:56am was only mailed to the Director of Regeneration and Development and was not copied into any other key parties, which unfortunately delayed subsequent communications,” state investigators.

It then appears that this offer was forwarded on by McClean to the demolition contractor, though the summary of the report doesn’t actually state this. But it does state that “the return email from the contractor at 2:16pm detailed that, at this stage, the front façade had already come down due to their machinery touching it.”

“The investigation concluded that there was no consistency to those who were copied into the various emails and at no time in or around this crucial period were all the key parties informed at the same time of what was happening,” said investigators.

“Had there been a consistent chain of command and communication in place whereby everybody was updated at the same time, it is highly likely that the subsequent misinformation [about the building having spontaneously collapsed] would not have occurred.”

Confusingly, although the report suggests that the 11:56am email from HHB was forwarded on to contractors by McClean, it then suggests that the return email at 2:16pm was sent to the unnamed “structural engineer”.

“It is of critical importance that the structural engineer admitted that he hadn’t in hindsight updated the key senior leads concerned as he should have done throughout this period as to his decision to recommence the demolition as instructed to the contractor,” reads the report.

“Neither did he update them as to the fact the contractor had emailed him at 2:16pm the same day to reveal that machinery had caused the façade to collapse and not that it had fallen in on itself as was reported.”

This leads to the question of why, given that the council’s structural engineer was informed by the contractor that the facade of the building had collapsed as a result of demolition rather than by chance at 2:16pm on 10 January, the council continued to maintain the latter version of events until we published our story on 6 February – almost a month later.

Investigators state that: “When questioned, [the structural engineer] admitted that this was a mistake on his behalf, explaining that he not had not picked up on the detail of the 2:16pm email until it came to light again following a review of documentation on 5 February.”

“In defence of this, he stated he honestly believed as reported that the building had fallen in on itself and he had not set out to deceive anyone,” it continues. “He rationalised this was due to a lot happening on the day itself that included a personal site visit he had undertaken and there being heavy email traffic where he had missed this crucial detail.”

The report states that senior staff were therefore "unaware of the reality of the situation until the video footage from the local media publication ‘Now Then’ was shared with the council on 2 February and the emails as to what had been communicated on the day surfaced."

It's understood by Now Then that the false story about the building having collapsed spontaneously originated from council officers assuming that this is what had happened after the structural engineer failed to send on the 2:16pm email from the contractor.

The report states that investigators believe that what was communicated to the press, including Now Then, between 10 January and 5 February was what was “genuinely believed” to be the case, and that they had not found evidence of “any level of cover up” in this respect.

But they did find that the structural engineer had failed to pass on several pieces of information to “key senior leads”, which presumably refers to McClean.

“It is of critical importance that the structural engineer admitted that he hadn’t in hindsight updated the key senior leads concerned as he should have done throughout this period as to his decision to recommence the demolition as instructed to the contractor,” reads the report.

“Neither did he update them as to the fact the contractor had emailed him at 2:16pm the same day to reveal that machinery had caused the façade to collapse and not that it had fallen in on itself as was reported. The investigation concludes there is nothing contained within the communications he had with senior leads that explicitly stated these 2 important factors. No reasonable inference be made from them either to this effect.”

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A frame from footage we obtained showing that demolition had already started at 12:44pm, with the turrets intact.

Four-minute warning

Investigators state that “in summary it appears that the eventual demolishment of the Market Tavern, although disappointing to the council, local heritage groups and the wider community, was inevitable.”

But the investigation was carried out by Barrow & Parker, a Birmingham-based firm who describe themselves as HR and management consultants, so it isn’t clear what architectural or heritage expertise they have on which to draw this conclusion.

Interestingly, the latest edition of the ‘Castlegate News’ newsletter sent out by the council on 9 July contains an update on work to convert the wider castle site into a report, and states that: “Earthworks have been completed as much as possible on the east side of the site and a new access ramp has been constructed through the site of the old Market Tavern pub.”

Strangely, the summary of the report concludes by defending the decision made by the “highly experienced structural engineer” to authorise the resumption of demolition work seven minutes before the deadline that had been agreed between the council and Hallamshire Historic Buildings.

After stating that he had not “acted outside of his scope of authority to do this,” investigators conclude that “had he waited only several minutes later until after Midday, this would not have created such an issue.”

They continue: “The fact that the heritage groups email was sent just 4 minutes prior to the deadline only exacerbated matters and set in motion a sequence of events that resulted in the subsequent miscommunication that occurred.”

The slightly bizarre implication here seems to be that it was less important that the firm deadline of midday was respected because HHB had only met it by a matter of minutes. But if the structural engineer had sent his email after the agreed deadline, it’s possible that this communication could have reached him in time.

“It is clear from the independent investigation that unintentional errors in communication led to incorrect information being shared with a range of stakeholders and I am disappointed that this took place,” said Cllr Ben Miskell, Chair of the Transport, Regeneration and Climate Policy Committee, in a statement accompanying the report summary.

“The organisation must now learn from this, and we are already taking action to make sure we do. It is really important to us that people get the information that they need from us, and I wish to reiterate our apology to those affected.”

The report states that "no formal action is to be taken in respect to any of the key individuals subject to the allegations" Now Then have contacted Hallamshire Historic Buildings for comment.

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