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Derelict Cheltenham

Michael Hasted investigates the shameful deterioration of our once glorious and elegant town and states his opinion. crack

It takes an awfully long time to shake off an image. When we tell our London friends we now live in Cheltenham we are inevitably greeted with an “Ooohh, very posh.” reaction. There was a time when Cheltenham, along with Bath, was regarded as one of the smartest, most elegant towns in England.
That’s quite a reputation to live up to, but I get the distinct impression that the Council and planners here aren’t even trying.

Cheltenham’s council and town planners have a responsibility to preserve for future generations a heritage that has been created over the last 200 years. Instead they have, over the years, approved the destruction of many fine old buildings and allowed them to be replaced by bland, shabby monstrosities. One of the worst is the concrete bunker block between Henrietta Street and Bennington Street although I am assured that this block is high on the council’s priority list for improvement.

The rot set in during the late sixties and early seventies with the demolition of the old Grammar School in the High Street closely followed by the New Club on the corner of the Promenade and Imperial Square. Both these magnificent and prominent buildings were replaced by structures that had no place in any town centre, let alone prime sites in central Cheltenham. The Eagle Star building dominates much of the town and destroys many of the beautiful views of which we were justly proud.

I spoke to Mark Coote who took time off from the hectic campaign trail to give me his views. “You are right to question the wisdom of siting buildings in Britain’s most complete Regency town which at the time were controversial but now just look dated, stark and utilitarian.

Rather than blend in to their neighbourhoods they are a worse eyesore now than they were then. Today’s planning officials have a duty of care and preservation that must be bound by standards reflecting what went before. I hope the lessons of the 1960s and 70s can be learned. I think your column will maintain some conscientiousness about the importance of this for future generations of Cheltonians.”

Luckily many of the town’s worst eyesores had a relatively short life span, the Millennium Restaurant and the nearby Whitbread office block for example. The Promenade, one of the most elegant streets in the world, has become a bus station. Why wasn’t the existing bus station 100 yards away in Royal Well Crescent used? Not that anyone would want to use it; it is in a disgusting state, spoiling one of Cheltenham’s finest architectural features. How could those responsible for town planning in Cheltenham let this happen?

In many ways the chickens have now come home to roost. Many of the shops and buildings stand empty in the town centre. Of course, this is largely due to the recession but in many cases the excessively high taxes imposed by national government have also contributed.

There are very few ‘proper’ shops in the centre of Cheltenham. In Stroud, Cirencester and even Gloucester it is possible to buy everything you need in the town centre without ever having to venture into a supermarket. In Cheltenham town centre there are a couple of up-market delicatessens but no decent baker, butcher, fish-monger, green-grocer etc. etc. The Council has however actively promoted the range of street markets that regularly appear on the Promenade offering both local produce and also products from further afield.The council are not entirely responsible for the empty property in and around the town centre which is also a response to the dynamics of the wider economy and globalisation forcing out certain boutique or unique shops in favour of larger multiples in towns with a significant population but I feel they should take responsibility for the appearance of our streets and not allow much of the decay that is taking place.

Several large, important and prominent buildings are a disgrace. Their boarded up doorways and crumbling facades are an affront to anyone who has the slightest sensitivity and concern for our once beautiful and elegant town.

The state of the old Odeon cinema in Winchcombe Street and the so-called Springbok, the former Coliseum cinema, just around the corner in Albion Street, is a scandal. They were both once fine buildings with fascinating histories attached to them. Did you know, for example, that the song It’s a Long Way to Tipperary was reputedly written in one of the dressing rooms and first performed at the Coliseum when it was a music hall?

Both buildings have had planning permission granted for redevelopment but there is no saying when these projects will start or how long they will take. In the meantime, sadly the owners of these historic buildings are allowing them to simply be left to crumble. The former garage and car showroom behind the Odeon is now also derelict as is the site of the former Axiom a few yards along.

An elderly resident of the Pates Alms Houses next door to the abandoned Springbok bar told me, “I’ve been here nearly 15 years; I wish they’d do something with it. It has got really bad and there are rats around now. This is the first time I’ve had trouble with vermin, so I’d prefer flats or offices to just letting it rot.”
Mary Nelson, a member of the Cheltenham Local History Society had something to say as well. “No doubt Cheltenham Borough Council will not like what you are doing, but everything you are writing needs saying. Both councillors and officers need to be much more aware of, and proactive in, stopping the rot in Cheltenham and putting some genuine pride back into the town.”

Almost one of the most prominent sites in town, where the grandiose New Club once stood, now appears semi-derelict. The so called Quadrangle in the Promenade has been empty for many months. It is dirty, boarded up and surrounded by an ugly, rickety metal fence. The Council has assured me that steps are being undertaken to restore some semblance of respectability to the site but again they are negotiating with private property interests.

However, on the positive side, the state of the Quadrangle does fit in very nicely with the state of the pavement which runs from its door up to the Queens Hotel. Talk about health and safety; the pavement is a potential death trap. Although this is the responsibility of the County Council, it seems many people cannot understand how it has got to this state. There are,however, plans to completely relay this section of pavement but surely, until that happens, some running repairs could be done.

I talked to a couple of passers-by as they picked their way through the rubble. Karen from Fairview was trying to manoeuvre a buggy. “I think it’s disgusting, this bit of pavement here. It’s right in what should be the nicest part of town and look at it. I just got the wheels of the buggy caught in one of the gaps and nearly tipped the toddler out onto the ground.”

A pensioner, a smartly dressed lady who did not wish to be named, said, “It’s dangerous. Some of these slabs actually wobble when you tread on them. I could really hurt myself if I fell over here. I’m 83 and a fall at my age can be fatal. I know a lady who tripped on the pavement just up the road and broke her wrist. She got compensation, but what good’s that? It would be more efficient for the County Council to use the money to maintain the streets rather than pay out compensation.”

Does the Cheltenham Borough Council not care what our town looks like? Do they not feel under any obligation to protect and preserve? Do they not consider they have a responsibility to provide the very best and most suitable new developments for the town?

Thousands of visitors from this country and all over the world come here every year expecting a beautiful, stylish town that lives up to their expectations. What must these people think?

I accept that the Cheltenham Borough Council is not directly responsible for many of the issues listed here and is, I’m sure, as aware and concerned about many of them as we all are. However it does seem strange that there is nobody who is willing or able to take responsibility for the problems that beset this town.
I did not go searching for these sites. All I did was walk around the town for a couple of hours with my camera, recording what I saw. I did not go to far flung corners, rooting around in back streets to find these places. They were there, right under my, and everyone else’s, nose.

It is however very reassuring to find that I am not alone in my observations and concerns. I am particularly pleased to note that a new task force has been established to tackle many of these challenges. This task force which has developed as the next phase of Civic Pride has support from four agencies (Cheltenham Borough Council, Gloucestershire County Council, the South West Regional Development Agency and the Homes & Communities Agency) and has been able to recruit an impressive board of advisers who are as passionate about Cheltenham as I am. I look forward to reporting on their progress over the coming months and years.