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The Amphitheatre III

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part IV

The Amphitheatre V

Back to parts 1 | 01 | II |III On to part V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 On to St. John's Church

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Hamphitheatre bannerere we see the impressive 20 metre-long banner commissioned by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust on display at a BBC Music Live event at the amphitheatre in late May 2000.

The Trust would have liked it to remain in situ for the entire 'period of consultation' which, so we had been led to believe, Chester City Council was now actively pursuing with all the public. However, very soon afterwards, the banner was taken down on the orders of that very same council.

In his letter to the local press a couple of weeks earlier, Councillor Neil Richie had assured us that "all councillors were in support of the aims of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust". Certain council officers, however, would seem to have been of a rather diffent persuasion. The following communication about the banner, headed "without prejudice", to the Trust from Head of Planning Andy Farrall illustrated precisely how supportive the city council actually was:

"This is an advert- it is intended to draw the attention of the public to the campaign. Under the above regulations the banner requires 'express consent' from the local planning authority (the City Council in this case). The fact that it is temporary is not relevant in this case as it does not fall within any of the categories of temporary adverts as set out in the regulations. Therefore, to display the banner you need make a formal application to the City Council by filling in the relevant forms, which are available from this office, and a fee of £190 is required (our italics). The application is then processed and the decision should then be put to the Council's Planning Board for determination".

We felt sure that the banners publicising council-approved events that flapped from the hugely-unpopular flagpoles in Town Hall Square had been granted the appropriate permission- hadn't they?

City council spin-doctor Michael McGivern proved equally supportive to the aims of the Trust: "We do not allow any organisation to display banners on council-owned land- and certainly not on ancient monuments".

Our photograph would seem to indicate that the banner was actually displayed upon a 1960s brick wall, but whatever... Here's some reader's comments about the situation.

The banner itself was later displayed for a while high up on the steelwork of the new extension to the Mill Hotel next to the Shropshire Union Canal and the city's Inner Ring Road, proprietors Gordon and Gary Vickers being supporters of the aims of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust. Speaking before a council meeting in July 2000, Gordon Vickers had said, "In a democratic country everyone has a right to voice their opinion otherwise it becomes a dictatorship. If councillors ignore the views of their constituents, they become dictators".

However, the head office of the contractors carrying out the work on the extension, Joseph Finney PLC of Winsford, seemed not qute so keen on free speech- at least not on their patch- for they ordered the removal of the banner, saying it was not "appropriate" to advertise anything on the site except the project itself.

Some time earlier, on 10th May 2000, a second packed public meeting called by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust took place at the Town Hall, where was presented a fascinating series of proposals for alternative uses for Dee House. Should it be totally demolished and the site cleared ready for excavation? Should its facade be retained but moved back 50 yards or so away from the amphitheatre to form the frontage of an entirely new building? Or should it be completely restored and utilised as a museum / visitor / interpretive centre at the heart of an ongoing archaeological excavation?

Archaeologist and author Dr David Mason spoke movingly of the deliberate trashing of the great Roman bath houses and the mysterious Elliptical Building- unique in the Roman World- in the 1960s and 70s during the construction of the Grosvenor Precinct and Forum, illustrated with some heart-rending slides of the bulldozers at their destructive work. He pointed out that a high proportion of Chester's Roman and later finds- including hundreds of items found during the 1960s amphitheatre excavation and many of the unique collection of Roman gravestones found in the North Wall- are currently in storage due to lack of display space at the Grosvenor Museum. A new museum in Dee House may be the ideal home for this important material, together with whatever new finds come to light during the course of the excavation of the southern half. This latter idea was greeted with a deal of enthusiasm by many attendees, but they were reminded that, in stark contrast to this, our City Council's idea of restoration involved the building being utilised as yet more commercial offices with restaurants and bars on the ground floor- doubtless with a generous allocation of car parking space. The courthouse developer, David McLean, had offered to underwrite the cost of this refurbishment- around £1.5 million- but was understood to be looking for a 'realistic' financial return on his investment. Sadly, in a city where even such ancient monuments as the Watertower and the Phoenix Tower have been long closed due to 'lack of funds' (a disgraceful situation that continues years later, in Summer 2013) there seemed little likelihood of either local authority or philanthropic private funding- from building developers or elsewhere- being available for such 'unprofitable' enterprises as a mere museum. The cultural and educational benefits that such a facility would bring to Chester's citizens and visitors evidently counted for little in an environment where a fast profit was all that mattered.

Whatever the case for Dee House, a clear majority of those attending the meeting nevertheless made it clear that they wished to see the building demolished and a full excavation of the amphitheatre take place and everyone present expressed their strong desire to see a rapid halt to the work on the courthouse. The evening's findings were duly forwarded to the City Council and Lord Chancellor's Department for their consideration.

amphitheatre map 1989"The Court service signed a legally binding contract with the Developer, David McLean Developments Ltd, on 20 December 1999 whereby the Court service is legally bound to occupy the building within twenty-one days of the completion of its construction. The Court Service were aware of the location of the site and of its archaeological significance, but all appropriate approvals in relation to both planning and preservation had been obtained by the developers".
Government spokesperson Jane Kennedy MP answering a Parliamentary question by Conservative MP Nick Hawkins: April 2000

We thought you'd be interested in seeing the map on the right- a small section from the Areas of Archaeological Importance (AAI) plan, which was drawn up by Chester City Council in 1989 to meet the requirements of Section 2 of the 1979 Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, and described as "for internal use only".

(In 1984, Chester had been designated as one of only five Areas of Archaeological Importance in the UK. The formal incorporation of archaeology into the planning system this brought about was expanded into a national policy with the advent of the Planning Policy Guidance Note 16- 'PPG16'- in 1990).

The areas coloured red, which include the entire area of the amphitheatre, Dee House, St. John's Church and the recently-refurbished Roman Garden are described in the accompanying key thus:

"Scheduled sites and / or other areas of archaelogical importance where no development is permissible except for the purpose of public display of ancient remains".

The red dots 37 and 38 on the amphitheatre site are described as:

"Currently displayed and / or display-worthy sites and features. Existing displays are to be retained, others to be added wherever possible. No damaging or limiting development permissible" (our italics).

More recently, the Greater Chester Local Plan dating from 1988, which gave guidance on overall planning policy, marked the site as a 'Conservation Area, section CA3', with a stated policy to "increase public knowledge and access to the historical monument" and the current Local Plan for Chester (since 1997) designates the amphitheatre site as a strategic open space and part of the 'green

So much for all that, then.

roman soldiersYou may also be interested to know that the archaeologically-important area known as Fletcher's Lane / Buildings, between Eastgate Street and St. Michael's Row, which our councillors have recently allowed to be needlessly destroyed so that Brown's /Debenham's can extend their sales area- was also coloured red on this map. One opponent of this was Councillor Steve Davis, who told his colleagues at the time, "Your arguments for Debenham's development destroy all arguments for protecting the amphitheatre. Anyone who votes in favour of this application obviously doesn't give a damn for the heritage of Chester".

The Planning Board response, however, was that it "considered that the benefits of a retail investment in the city centre outweighed the archaeological implications".

Suitably translated into Latin, the above would surely serve admirably as a new official city motto.

In May 2000, Former Environment Secretary, John Gummer, renewed his attack upon the courthouse development. Writing in the 27th May edition of Estates Gazette, Mr Gummer referred to the legal opinion recently obtained by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust, and said that it put the Lord Chancellor "in the cart"...

"Of all government departments, the Lord Chancellor's is the one that ought to be most concerned to keep to the letter of the law. Lord Irvine will therefore be furious to discover that his officials have really dropped him in it in Chester.
There, the city council has purported to give him planning permission for a new courthouse. I say "purported" because the actual planning permission was for an office block. When the council was challenged on the change of use, it claimed that this was not material and therefore no new planning permission was necessary.
Now the citizens of Chester were none too pleased about all this, because the site happens to stand over the remains of the Roman amphitheatre. Many of them thought it would have been better to have allowed the excavation of this remarkable archaeological treasure, rather than close it to view for a century or so.
So they went off to eminent planning barrister Vincent Fraser for counsel's opinion. Fraser has come back with a damning indictment of the whole situation. In his view, there is no planning permission because there has been no change of use. The office building was never built and therefore never used. The use cannot therefore be changed, and the council must give specific planning permission.
That puts the Lord Chancellor in the cart, as the steelwork of the new courthouse (right) is rising apace. His very competent junior minister, Jane Kennedy, visited Chester last Friday, but was determined not to let herself get caught.
The fact is, someone is going to. It is a scandal that there should be any question of the legalities in so controversial a case involving the guardians of the law. The new courthouse doesn't look as if it will improve the dismal architectural record that the Lord Chancellor's department has shown under both governments, so it would be no loss if building were stopped permanently. Indeed, it would do us all good if we showed that even Lord Irvine had to obey the law".

Mind you, all this was somewhat rich coming from the man who gave the go-ahead to the unnecessary and massively-destructive second runway at Manchester Airport, who rejected a House of Lords proposal to create a registry of contaminated land (also, naturally, opposed by the construction industry) and who for three years mysteriously failed to introduce a moratorium on the construction of out-of-town superstores, despite repeatedly declaring that he was about to deliver one.

On 5th June 2000, Sir Ron Watson, Chairman of the Local Government Association's Tourism Executive, visited Chester's Roman amphitheatre and said that, unless stopped, the County Court development would mark a missed tourism opportunity for the city.

Sir Ron, who is the leading elected Local Government tourism representative and a nationally-respected figure in the tourist industry, said that Chester's Roman heritage was epitomised by the amphitheatre, which, if imaginatively presented, could generate considerable tourist revenue for the city.

"Instead of seeing the cultural, educational and tourist potential of the Amphitheatre maximised, we are now facing the prospect of losing it for at least a hundred years. Funding packages are available, and I am optimistic that an imaginative bid could result in the money being found to excavate and display the amphitheatre to the advantage of the tourist industry in Chester. Tourism is a vital part of Chester's local economy, and I would be saddened if such a unique attraction as the amphitheatre were to be lost for perhaps three or four generations".

Around this time, we received a document penned by one Flavius: Going Round in Circles: a Tale of Arrogance, Avarice and Hypocrisy at Chester's Roman Amphitheatre. Don't ask who the author is- we don't have a clue, but we're sure you'll agree with us it's dynamite!

The fear had frequently been expressed that, should McLean's monstrosity actually get completed, this would prevent full excavation of the amphitheatre for at least the next 50-100 years. The reality would actually seem to have been much worse. The friendly moles were at work again and we received documents that dated from February 2000 which detailed city council proposals to give David McLean a 200 year lease on Dee House! It seemed this was first put to the Leadership Board in October 1999 and the final decision was to have been made by the full council on April 12th 2000. This was postponed, apparently due to the high level of public opposition and in response to the adress made at the council meeting by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust. We gathered that a decision was instead to be taken at the council meeting on July 5th- three days after the Trust's planned public demonstration took place.

The leaked documents showed that McLean's had offered up to £500,000 to pay for the amphitheatre's restoration. Once they got their hands on the 200 year lease, they would proceed to convert Dee House into commercial offices on the upper floors with restaurants and bars on the ground floor. In addition, a token area was apparently to be devoted to 'archaeological interpretation'. The city council would retain the freehold and receive 10% of the rents generated- or £25,000 per year, whichever turned out to be the higher sum.

Most worryingly, the report stated, "rules will be waived as far as necessary in order to negotiate a deal with the named party".

alan williamsAnd you thought we lived in a democracy. Chester Amphitheatre Trust co-founder Alan Williams (right, speaking on the Town Hall steps at the public demonstration on July 2nd 2000) commented on this, "The council is acting against the wishes of the people of Chester and is avoiding any form of consultation... We have now probably got enough information to hang them on. The council says its policy is not to grant planning permission to speculative office developments and yet the David McLean proposal will include building offices. The leaked document shows that they got hold of the site excluding other people having a chance. This is either institutionalised corruption or people making mistakes. This is not just an issue for Chester, it should be of concern to the whole country".

These comments were later to get poor Mr Williams into hot water, as we shall soon see. He stressed that this not a matter of individuals attempting to gain from development deals, but something 'bred into the fabric' of local authorities due to the inadequacies of government funding; cash-strapped councils were more likely to accept and approve plans when private interests offered to foot the bill.

This is known as planning gain and is, of course, completely legal, but should nevertheless be seen as a source of great concern where it results in crass developments which take little account of planning restrictions wisely designed to protect the unique features of ancient cities- we refer you again, for example, to the AAI plan above- and in this case, was apparently being allowed to completely ignore them. What this would mean for any future development in the city, such as the massive scheme currently in preparation for the Town Hall area, was anybody's guess...

A council spokesman responded "The council reiterates its long term aspirations to see the full excavation of the site" (having handed over a large chunk of it to a single private interest for the next couple of centuries, the emphasis would certainly appear to have been on the phrase 'long term') and continued "We are in the process of getting the views and opinions of a wide range of people".

Commenting upon the widespread leaking of the 200 year lease shocker, the council spokesman laughably concluded,"It is unfortunate that confidential documents should be leaked in such a way that they could mislead the residents of Chester".

As opposed to being kept secret in order to mislead the residents of Chester, we assumed...

Mr Williams' accusation that the council was putting the lure of developer's money before the long-term interests of Chester led, on 15th June 2000, to the local press publishing this 'open letter' to him from Paul Durham, Chief Executive of Chester City Council:

"One of the problems staff here have faced from the start in trying to find a positive way forward with the Amphitheatre Trust has been your personal style in dealing with other people. This is most evident in recent press coverage in the Standard and Chronicle newspapers where your avowed wish to work and co-operate with us has been totally compromised by your apparent mission to publicly denigrate both the city council and its hard working people and, in your own words, to 'hang us'.
I refute entirely your accusations of corruption here. Would you please contact the newspapers you have spoken to and withdraw the accusations of corruption you have made against the city council. Please also confirm to them that you were wrong ever to have made such baseless allegations.
When you have done so then my colleagues and I will be able to have further contact with you and to attend meetings that you are involved in. Until you withdraw your very serious accusations against us officers of the city council cannot work with you. We will however continue to work with the trust through any other representative the trust chooses to nominate".

amphitheatre demo at the eastgateConsidering their record to date, it seemed rich indeed for Chester City Council to have attempted to take the moral high ground in this manner- and doubtless most convenient for them to refuse to deal with one of the founders of a campaigning organisation which clearly had the backing of of the great majority of Chester's people- and, as our rapidly-growing letters pages show, of people throughout the world- with, of course, the odd exceptions...

Contradiction upon contradiction. Speaking about the amphitheatre scandal on BBC Radio 4's consumer affairs programme, You and Yours on Monday, 12th June 2000, Chester City Council spin doctor Michael McCabe admitted "We were wrong. We made a mistake over the amphitheatre. All the councillors would be honest and say if we were here today (???) we would do it differently and if that's an admission of a mistake then I think a lot of people would make that admission".

Around this time, the Amphitheatre Trust operated a stall at the Cross in Chester city centre over the course of a few Saturdays where passers-by were invited to sign a petition calling upon the Lord Chancellor to find an alternative site for his courthouse and to allow full excavation of the amphitheatre. They reported that, despite the unclement weather, people were "rushing to sign up" and thousands of signatures were obtained, which were duly forwarded for the attention of the city council and Lord Chancellor.

On Sunday, July 2nd 2000, there took place a public march and demonstration against the courthouse development. The rain held off and hundreds of people marched from the amphitheatre to the Town Hall where they gathered to make their wishes known loundly and clearly. Our photograph shows Emperors and Legionnaires marching at the head of the long procession as it passed beneath Chester's famous Eastgate Clock. More pictures of the day may be seen on the next page...

The Six Point Plan:
Here are the Chester Amphitheare Trust's proposals
- presented to the city council's Leadership Board on 6th June 2000- designed to allow the council to retain the entire amphitheatre without incurring large costs:
• Chester City Council and David McLean put forward a 'land swap' proposal involving one of the council-owned car parks and the amphitheatre site.
• The Lord Chancellor and David McLean agree to put the courthouse construction on hold.
• David McLean provides details of the cost of work carried out to date; the cost of clearing the amphitheatre site and cost or saving from moving to an alternative site.
• Chester City Council makes a formal offer to David McLean for an alternative site that allows all the costs to be reimbursed.
• The Lord Chancellor and David McLean agree revised details for the alternative site and court building at the same price to the Lord Chancellor as the current lease.
• All parties sign formal agreements.

Go on to Part V of our story of the Chester Amphitheatre. Here is a growing collection of letters to us and the local press.
r visit the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist instead...

Top of Page | Site Front Door | Site Index | Chester Stroll Introduction | Amphitheatre I | 01 | II | III | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | | X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 |
St. John's House
| Chester Amphitheatre Project |Letters page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Some alternative views
'Round in Circles' by Flavius | Save the Chester Amphitheatre! (1932) | On to St. John's Church

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