SIC convener Malcolm Bell has moved to assure islanders that its decision to carry out £1.7 million-worth of repairs at Lerwick Town Hall is unavoidable in order to maintain a “vital community asset”.
The local authority is duty-bound to ensure the upkeep of the B-listed building, and Bell says it is clear that deterioration of the sandstone surrounds of its 130 year old stained glass windows means something must be done to prevent them crumbling away.
A major piece of maintenance was carried out in 1997 but, while he is confident the workmanship was of a high standard, the stone material used “unfortunately hasn’t stood the test of time”.
If repairs were not carried out the local authority would have Historic Scotland on its back, and he fears that if one pane of stained glass came away “it would all come tumbling out like a pack of cards”.
Council building maintenance officer Ivor Jarmson and town hall caretaker Billy Sandilands showed members of the local media the extent of the damage on Tuesday.
The south-facing Thoms and Zetland windows, which overlook the old Hillhead swimming pool car park, are in a parlous state with the sandstone surrounds eroding badly.
The Thoms window frame has flexed and developed an indented “belly”, while Sandilands – who describes the situation as “really quite worrying” – regularly has to sweep up sandy deposits beneath the windows and on the sills.
Sandilands describes the sandstone as being as susceptible as drilling into a Cadbury’s Crunchie bar.
Cracks have developed in some of the stained glass, including a particularly bad one right across the neck of King Harald. The Maid of Norway window has not escaped unscathed, with the video above showing how badly the window buckles during a strong gale.
There is also deterioration on the outside of the building, and in some areas only a layer of Perspex is preventing water from getting in.
The town hall was built between 1881-1884. Substantial renovation to the stained glass window surrounds was carried out in the late 1990s, but Bell said it was regrettable that the materials used had barely been able to stand up to the rigours of Shetland weather for 20 years.
He stressed that SIC members of today were not seeking to pass the blame onto 1997 councillors.
Jarmson said the closest match in colour and material was stone from a quarry in Elgin and scientific tests were being conducted to evaluate the impact of salt erosion.
Bell rejected assertions that the decision to fork out for repairs was borne of SIC councillors’ desire to keep themselves in comfort at a time of sharp cuts in public spending.
He said it was not uncommon for 1,000 visitors a day to be taken round the building when cruise ships stop off in Lerwick Harbour. If any of the windows were to be lost “the damage to Shetland’s reputation would be immense”.
“It’s much more a community asset than it is a council office these days,” Bell said. “It’s used extensively for weddings, coffee mornings, civic events, concerts. We use it as a meeting room – it’s not really fit for purpose as a council chamber, truth be told, and I think we’re the only council in Scotland that doesn’t have a purpose-built chamber.
“The idea that we’re trying to create something palatial for ourselves is just not true. There’s nothing I’d love more than to have a proper purpose-built chamber. The issue here is very much a case of protecting historical community assets.”
He said the buildings were designed and made by the same company responsible for much of the stained glass at the Palace of Westminster – itself facing a hefty repair bill of up to £3 billion to stop it turning into an unusable “ruin”.
“If we do nothing at all, at some point in the future it will crumble away,” Bell said. “We don’t know exactly when that will be – if we have another gale like we had last year you never know what might happen.
“If that happened the council would, and rightly so, be held up to ridicule. At some point we have to do something to reverse the damage and make it good for as long as possible, for the next 50-100 years.”
The SIC will seek to have the building upgraded to A-listed status, which might help lever in outside money towards the cost. It has already had one approach to the Lottery Heritage Fund knocked back, but intends to reapply.
Bell vowed the local authority would “look at every single option to minimise the draw on public funds”.
He added that selling off the town hall was not a credible option: “It’s quite simple – who would buy it? If we sold it we’d have to ‘sell’ the liability as well, and I suspect we’d have to pay somebody to take it off our hands.”
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