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The Amphitheatre IV

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part V

The Amphitheatre VI

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

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Lord Irving scrupulously "avoided personal comment" on the increasingly contentious issue of the courthouse, preferring to leave his junior minister, Jane Kennedy (Labour MP for Wavertree, Liverpool) to fight a losing battle against the rising barrage of public and press criticism.

Lord IrvineHowever, in the House of Lords on June 28th 2000, he condescended to break his silence in the course of responding to a question by The Lord Roberts of Conwy. The text of the Parliamentary question and answer was as follows:

Question: The Lord Roberts of Conwy: "To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they propose to proceed with the building of a new county court house at Chester on the site of the Roman amphitheatre and have appropriate planning consents to do so".

Answer: The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): "The site is owned by a developer David McLean Developments Ltd with whom the Court Service entered into a legally binding contract on 20th December 1999 under which the Court Service is legally bound to occupy the building within twenty-one days of the completion of its construction.
Following demolition of the BritishTelecommunications building which occupied the same footprint as the new building, David McLean Developments Ltd funded an intensive series of archaeological excavations in consultation with the City archaeologist and English Heritage. These excavations impacted upon the design of the building and as a result it has been possible to avoid disturbing the remains of the amphitheatre beneath.
In fact, the foundations of the new building have been carefully designed to avoid any remains and to preserve them in situ, for posterity. The Court Service were aware of the location of the site and of its archaeological significance, but all appropriate approval in relation to both planning and preservation had been obtained by the developers".

Shadow Culture Secretary, Peter Ainsworth MP, commented upon the words of the Great One thus,

"Following my visit to Chester last month I wrote a personal letter to Lord Irvine, urging him to think again about the amphitheatre. I eventually received an unsympathetic reply from a junior minister". Him, us and everyone else.
Now Lord Irvine has been forced to express his own opinion. I had hoped that he would have had the sense to listen to local, national and international public opinion. However, the Lord Chancellor has lived up to his reputation for arrogance. He appears hell bent on denying Chester the opportunity to unveil the centrepiece of its Roman heritage with all the economic and cultural benefits that would have followed. Instead of an architectural jewel, it seems that Chester is destined to get a monument to Lord Irvine's pride".

"We call our cat Lord Irvine because he lives rent-free in the lap of luxury and is no bloody use to anyone"
Ronnie Corbett: Royal Variety Performance, December 17th 2000

A Price worth paying?
On July 4th 2000, the local press informed us that "by a narrow vote" councillors had opted to recommend retaining 'Invine's Folly' but allowing Dee House to be demolished "with a view to the long term excavation of the amphitheatre".

The other option of restoring Dee House "to house a heritage centre, bars and restaurants" (as opposed to a lot of speculative offices, as outlined previously) was actually voted down, to the annoyance of Council Leader Councillor John Price, who actually put forward the heritage centre plans in the first place, and who described his fellow councillor's decision as "the worst possible one. It takes no account of reality and is likely to be hugely expensive". His heritage centre- housed, presumably, in whatever back room McLean's couldn't manage to let out as offices- would, he claimed, "Give the people of Chester a first-class facility and would revitalise the area as well as preserving the archaeology in place (i.e. under the courthouse)".

amphitheatre demoHow interesting, then, to recall his words of 3rd November 1998- a mere 19 months earlier- when the possibility of demolishing Dee House in order to expose the amphitheatre had previously been debated: "It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to unveil the most significant archaeological monument in Chester. It could be a massive tourist attraction and a majot fillip for Chester against a background of increased competition from Trafford Park and Cheshire Oaks".

(For the benefit of readers outside the Chester area, these latter are both huge out-of-town shopping developments).

Right and below: the people of Chester marching en masse from a rally in Town Hall Square to the amphitheatre.

Ten days later, on 13th November 1998, Cllr Price had again been quoted as saying "we have been given the gift of another opportunity to uncover the amphitheatre. Losing a Grade II listed building would be a price worth paying... This is one of the most important things to be debated by this council, certainly in my time... this is the council's moment of history. We must go for it... But the people who really matter are the people of Chester and the sooner they know all about this the better".

Curiously, back in January 2000, Cllr Price had been a co-signatory, together with the three other party leaders, to a City Council press release accusing the author of these pages of "betraying the city, putting jobs and livelihoods at risk and undermining the tremendous work being done to maintain Chester's reputation as the jewel of the north"- for ensuring that 'the sooner the people of Chester- and the world- knew all about this the better'...

Councillors Price, Proctor, Bailey and Haynes- and smalltown politicians everywhere- would have been wise to ponder the words of E M Forster (1879-1970), "Democracy has another merit, it allows criticism, and if there isn't public criticism, there are bound to be hushed-up scandals"...

Nevertheless, we admire a man of unwavering conviction, and with a strong grip on reality...

Interestingly, in early November, Cllr Price had been the the subject of an unsuccessful vote of no confidence, moved by Tory councillor Michael Poole. Referring to Cllr Price's chairmanship of the District Economy Board, he accused him of responsibility for numerous problems connected with the city's transport and financial policies- for example car parking charges, empty shops and out-of-town competition: "There are 1,252 shops in Chester and 115 are empty... Basically, you don't have a clue. You should apologise to the public, take responsibility and fall on your sword". He added, "the arrogance and defiance shown by Cllr Price makes my blood boil".

grosvenor museum modelAnd here's another 'Price-less' quote from the great one, dating from the end of November 2000 and somewhat of an eyebrow-raiser for those of us that have made it this far through the sorry saga of the Chester Amphitheatre: "Chester is partnership in practice. Working with the community is the way we do things now and in the future. Increasingly Chester is being recognised at a national level for all the good things that are going on here".

Right: a reconstruction of the Chester amphitheatre in the Grosvenor Museum

The full meeting of the city council, held the following day- July 5th 2000- produced a few surprises. Chester Amphitheatre Trust co-founder Dr Liane Smith presented the meeting with a 6,000 name petition, calling for the moving of the courthouse and full excavation of the amphitheatre.

Nevertheless, seemingly unmoved by this expression of the public will, the Labour group, led by (who else?) Cllr Price, were whipped into voting en masse for McLean's Dee House office conversion plan (we assumed by now that the chances of the building ever becoming a gallery, museum or suchlike were pretty slim)- including those councillors who also happened to be members of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust!

The Conservative group had apparently originally intended to go for a deferment but then joined with the Lib Dems to produce a 34-21 majority in favour of the demolition of Dee House and of the excavation of the amphitheatre "as far as is possible"... This vote was reported as "running contrary to advice from officers". No surprises there then.

So far so good. Unfortunately, the councillors seemed rather less than interested in pursuing further attempts to get the courthouse construction stopped or moved elsewhere. Which, of course, would mean, at best, a mere 40% exposed amphitheatre, with it and the surrounding townscape dominated and thoroughly spoiled by the unshielded presence of McLean's ghastly blockhouse and car park. We suddenly begin to sympathise somewhat with Cllr Price's "worst possible decision"...

amphitheatre marchThe full resolution passed by the meeting was as follows:
'This council resolves to determine a comprehensive conservation and development strategy for the whole site in association with relevant local and national organisations and in consultation with the people of Chester.

1. The objective of the strategy will be for the excavation of the whole or part of the unexcavated amphitheatre in the short to medium term. The council understands and accepts that this strategy will entail the demolition of Dee House.
This council:
2 . Reasserts its long-term aim of achieving the fullest possible excavation and public display of the amphitheatre site.
3. Notes its inability to prevent completion of the County Court building on part of the site.
4. Instructs its officers to prepare, in partnership with other interested bodies, detailed and costed proposals that will:
• produce a viable scheme for the phased excavation and display of the site, commencing with those areas of the site in council ownership, that may form the basis of an application for consent to demolish the listed building and excavate the scheduled ancient monument;
• allow complete excavation of the site in the longer term;
• ensure public ownership and control of as much of the site as is possible.
5. Will ensure that all proposals for the site are considered in accordance with 'best value' principles'.

The decision to demolish Dee House- as with the planned destruction of any listed building- must be dealt with by the Secretary of State, John Prescott, and this will consequently necessitate the holding of a Public Inquiry into the matter- a move that will doubtless be welcomed by many members of a community exasperated by the antics of their local representatives and council officers. One of whom, incidentally, Head of Planning Andrew Farrall, predictably spoke strongly in favour of the Dee House development proposals, as, tellingly, did a representative of the Chester Civic Trust.

The council decision will doubtless face many problems in the near future. Indeed, Cllr Price helpfully produced a letter from Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, who wrote that he "would have grave reservations about destroying one part of our heritage in order to reveal another"... It was also stated that English Heritage were almost certain to oppose the demolition plans.
In addition, there was concern that the decision to charge council planning officers- who, for reasons best known to themselves, were clearly opposed to the latest demolition/excavation proposals- with the task of "producing a viable scheme for the phased excavation and display of the site" was surely asking for trouble- or as one local wit put it, could be compared with putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank...

Here's how your councillor voted:
For demolition of Dee House and excavation of the amphitheatre: Graham Proctor, Brian Bailey, Colin Bain, John Boughton, Brian Crowe, Hugo Deynem, John Ebo, David Evans, Jean Evans, Ann Farrell, Molly Hale, Richard Hale, Charles Higgie, David Hull, Eleanor Johnson, Mia Jones, Michael Jones, James Latham, Jim McCabe, Noel McGlinchey, Eveleigh Moore Dutton, Stephen Mosley, Jean Nuttall, Margaret Parker, Eric Plenderleath, Terry Ralph, Neil Ritchie, Barbara Roberts, Paul Roberts, Richard Short, Andrew Storrar, Jeanne Storrar, Pauline Tilley, Ed Whalley.

Against the scheme: Jenny Baker, David Bennett, Dave Challen, Gwyn Cooper, Barry Cowper, Ruth Davidson, Steve Davies, Steve Duffus, John Fetherston, Doug Haynes, David Hughes, Jane Mercer, Marie Nelson, John Price, Lilian Price, John Randall, Bob Rudd, Sandra Rudd, Jason Stiles, Richard Taylor, John Vernon. In accordance with council custom, the Lord Mayor, Reggie Jones, abstained, as did three other councillors.

We thought you'd be interested in seeing one of the 'artist's impressions' from the McLean's Dee House renovation proposals thrown out by the city council. The architects were Manchester-based Harrison Ince Partnership. Note the unattractive structures which have sprouted along the right hand side of the site- and also the County court blockhouse crouching behind. The illustration gives the misleading impression that this latter is considerably less tall than Dee House, which, as anyone who's visited the site will confirm, is actually far from the truth.

The developers, however, predictably enthused about the more positive aspects of their handiwork:

"Opening a new heritage and leisure 'piazza' for the City of Chester... The Arena will be for the city, its workers, tourists and residents. It will provide cafés and restaurants beside a new civic space, adjacent to the exposed part of the amphitheatre. It will unite Roman Chester with the city in 2001 AD"... "The project will bring to life derelict Georgian and Victorian buildings, whilst preserving Roman and medieval archaeology in the ground below"...

chester guided walksThey also pointed out- in case we mere residents hadn't noticed- that, "the amphitheatre is a cherished asset in Chester. We are aware of the sensitivity of any proposals for change. These proposals will be controversial. We will consult fully with all relevant parties. The project will require their support and that of English Heritage, for its realisation". We were also told that, "Total excavation of the amphitheatre is not a viable option today, for many reasons" (such as allowing a private developer to build smack on top of it, for example?) "We have created for future generations a better opportunity to excavate than is available to us today, if that is their wish".

Much is made in the proposals for those cafés, restaurants and other leisure facilities, but then we learn that the roof would apparently be redesigned "to provide an addition floor of office space"- an asset of which there is in Chester, to say the least, no shortage. As, many would say, is the case with cafés: it seems that whenever a real business in the city centre is driven out due to excessively-high rent and rates, up will pop a smart, new, overcharging 'café-bar' to take its place. Of office blocks and restaurants we have enough- more than enough. Roman amphitheatres are quite another matter, however.

The introduction to the McLean proposals concludes, "We invite you to share our vision". We think not, thanks for asking.

Let us attempt a small conjecture... The Court Service has confirmed that the new courthouse would, amazingly, have a smaller floor area than their former building, Centurion House, in Northgate Street. When space starts to run out in the new building, as it inevitably will, where could they expand into, given that no further new buildings could surely ever be allowed here? The possibility of such an occurence would, to say the least, be extremely embarrassing for all concerned. Does it not seem logical then, that the Court Service would find a conveniently-refurbished Dee House, located right next door, ideal for their overspill offices, extra car parking and the like? Could this, in fact, have been the plan all along? It seems to fit the allusion to a 'Phase II' for the site referred to by McLean's Mark Thomas- and also possibly why certain of Chester's planning officials and politicians seemed so very unhappy about the demolition vote.

As previously observed, Chester is a city 'blessed' with far more office accomodation than it needs. That McLean's and the Labour group should have been keen to sink large sums of money into even more speculative commercial premises, situated in an already highly-congested corner of the city, and which they would be no guarantee of letting, seemed rather unlikely. The possibility of a 'done deal' with the Court Service and city council would make much more financial sense...

Idle speculation aside, the big question of the moment, of course, was what would become of the 'grand plan' now that a bunch of fool councillors had professed their intention, "contrary to advice from officers", to actually go ahead and demolish Dee House?

Here's an interesting, and not-unconnected, story that appeared in the National press back in late January 2000, just about the same time the Chester courthouse proposals were made public. The impoverished parents of a small village in Sicily, Santa Maria di Licodia, could not afford materials to build their planned children's theatre, but were delighted when an offer was made to fund the construction, in marble, of a brand new open-air amphitheatre! It would be ready in early Summer, when the children of local schools would perform their first play there. The scheme had the unified blessing of a local council deeply split between the Communist Refoundation Party and the far-right National Alliance- as well as the Italian Government. Who could have been the benefactor that financed such an enlightened scheme? No less than the-then Iraqi President, Saddam Hussein.

A growing collection of letters about the amphitheatre- or go on to Part VI - or visit the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist instead...

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St. John's House | Chester Amphitheatre Project | Your Letters page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | Some alternative views | 'Round in Circles' by Flavius
Save the Chester Amphitheatre! (published in 1932) | On to St. John's Church

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