Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

The Chester Amphitheatre

Letters to this site and the local press regarding the current development proposals part IX
Latest additions to his page were added 21st November 2003

26/6/02 As a former Cestrian living Down-Under I am deeply saddened about the lost opportunity of uncovering the concealed half of the amphitheatre.
The posturing and double speak of the City Council put me in mind of a documentary made by Ray Gosling some years ago which caused  a furore due to it's depiction of the City fathers as a bunch of inward looking 'toy-town' dwellers, who ended the programme by urinating against the City Walls to the tune of 'Just a Song at Twilight'! Many of the current incumbents then in opposition took comfort in the fact that those so shown were Conservatives.
Perhaps Ray could come back and do another show!  
I've not lived in Chester since 1988 and the scheme of Tony Barbet was under hot discussion at the time. Despite misgivings over the reconstructions I thought that the scheme had some considerable merits as well. One of which was the removal of Dee House which I've always thought was an eyesore even when not mouldering. The vista down to the Dee would have been marvellous and the wealth of knowledge and the income from the amphitheatre fully displayed would have been immense.
If the council would only look at York! I went to the Jorvik centre soon after it was opened and they were taking money hand over fist. Commercial interests were not hampered but boosted by the excavations- Chester's so-called guardians make me fume! The wanton destruction caused by the Inner Ring Road and that abortion that was placed by the Town Hall in replacement for the lovely old Market Hall is unspeakable. If Chester was in the USA it would have been declared a
national treasure and loved and protected.
I don't believe you can live in the past but Chester's Councils (as opposed to the people of Chester) have steadfastly flushed their past down the tubes.
I expect I am preaching to the converted here! Suffice to say I spent a delightful couple of hours last night following the route of the walls (& memory lane!) on your splendid website- to echo one of your correspondents, much better than the official Chester City Council site.
John Ithell, New Zealand

• 11th September 2003: Some time has elapsed since additions have been made to this collection of letters. In truth, very little debate over the future of the amphitheatre and its surroundings- in the local press or, it seems, within the council chamber- took place over this period. The following, mostly originating from the tireless pen of Alan Bonner- currently it seems the sole correspondent upon the matter, should suffice to bring you up to date with progress, such as it is...

9/3/03 A recent electioneering leaflet contained the headline 'The Price is Right.' A photograph of Chester City Council leader John Price was positioned alongside the heading. I thought of the Dee House saga and the 2003-4 council tax allocation of £80,000 toward plans for the long term excavation at the amphitheatre site.
The Chronicle issue of June 16th 2000, reported the city council's admission on BBC Radio 4 that a mistake had been made by allowing the county court to be built on part of the amphitheatre site.
Three weeks later, The Chronicle reported John Price's warning that the council's subsequent proposal to demolish the Grade ll listed Dee House could prove the biggest mistake the council had ever made.
On September 14th 2000, Chester City Council was informed by English Heritage that demolition of listed buildings is seen as a last resort and that a case for demolishing Dee House could not be made.
The Chronicle issue of January 19th 2001 reported John Price as excited by the request of David McLean Developments Ltd for a long term lease on Dee House. During 2001 the council spent in excess of £20,000 to fulfil its legal responsibility to waterproof and weatherproof the building pending a decision on its future.
Despite recognition that English Heritage maintained its position in relation to Dee House, John Price was reported by the Chronicle, (November 14th 2002) as 'delighted' with the decision of the city councillors to lead the way in securing the full excavation of the amphitheatre.
In late February 2003 the chief executive of English Heritage informed the council that his organisation's view remains as presented in September 2000, i.e. demolition of listed buildings is seen as a last resort when there is no economic future use, and it is extremely difficult for a justifiable case to be made out for the demolition of Dee House.
In thrilling to the recent Gateway Youth Theatre presentation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, I empathised with the declaration by Marcellus that 'something is rotten in the state of Denmark'.
Few of the windows at the back of Dee House are securely boarded. The majority are open to the elements by virtue of their opened lights and broken panes, and pigeons have free access to carry out further depredation.
I am unable to follow the lead of John Price by declaring myself either excited by a prospect of a commercial development of Dee House or delighted by the proposal to demolish the listed building, but I do express myself outraged by the blatant neglect of the council, itself a planning authority, to fulfill its responsibility to ensure that the structure remains waterproof, weatherproof, and pigeon-proof.
Alan Bonner

9/5/03 What an equivocal attitude towards listed builldings appears to exist within Chester City Council!
Bellway Homes recently placed advertising banners high on the city's Grade II listed lead-shot tower situated at the former leadworks site on Old Leadworks Lane. Given that the company had not made application for either advertising consent or listed building consent, council officers contacted the developers, who agreed to remove the offending material. The matter was soon resolved.
One seems to hear cries of: 'Well done, city council!' But wait!
A city council document headed 'Listed Buildings' refers to Chester district's 2,358 such bulldings. The 3% listed Grade I buildings, together with the 9% listed Grade II buildings, are declared to be twice the national average and recognised by the council 'as a unique environmental asset' with the council claiming:
• The prime importance of its careful guardianship of the listed buildings;
• A particularly proactive role in carrying out that guardianship by means of encouragement and control
• An exemphry record in preserving its listed buildings with comprehensive repair programmes instigated as far back as 1968.
It may be that, after taking ownership of the Grade II listed Dee House, the council's perception of what really constitutes a 'unique environmental asset' allowed for the structure to deteriorate to such an extent that, had the building been in private ownership, very serious consideration would have been given to the serving of an Urgent Works Notice requiring the owner to take action to maintain the building.
In the event, the council was forced, in 1991, to spend in excess of £20,000 to weatherproof and waterproof Dee House to demonstrate guardianship while the possibility of a viable economic future for the building was considered.
Recent observation has demonstrated that the council has, during the intervening years, neglected to rectify the deteriorating conditions now obtaining at the rear of the structure.
Whereas the impression may be gained that, as far as the council is concerned, what is sauce for some geese is not sauce for some ganders, Council Tax-payers are entitled to expect the council to demonstrate that its claimed 'exemplary record in preserving its listed buildings' is more than an empty form of words.
It was John of Salisbury who, in the 12th Century, pointed out that 'the torpor of indifference leads to the futility of occupation'.
Alan Bonner

23/5/03 During the past three years I have followed with interest the discussion and proposals concerning the future of Dee House in particular and the amphitheatre in general.
The twists and turns of argument have heen a delight of local politlcs since The Chronicle, on July 21, 2000, printed Dora Taylor's point of view that:
'The amphitheatre... is just a dip in the land and could be placed in any old field... Chester needs the amphitheatre like it needs a hole in its head.'
The amphitheatre may well be just a dip in the land. Contrariwise, the city council-approved County Court is a blot on the landscape which is shielded from the public's main view by the controversial Dee House.
All things must come to an end and it is to be hoped that Dee House deliberations will come to a satisfactory end. Through the courtesy of your columns l hope to make clear what I consider a jurisprudential solution would be,

AMPHI HOO-HA (A Georgio-Victorian Lament)

Near the Groves at River Dee-side,
Where the County Crown Court rises,
Close unto the Roman Gardens,
Stands a gem 'mongst Chester's prizes.
Old Dee House of Georgian beauty,
Added to by later styling,
Represents a valued treasure,
Architecture most beguiling.
Yet we leam the City Fathers
Wouid create a trap for tourists,
Excavations pseudo-Roman,
Full offending culture's purists.
'Level Dee House!' cry the Fathers,
'Just clear the decks, for Heaven's sake.
'Build upon our infrastructure.
'We can't both have and eat our cake'.
Listed buildings are protected
By Statutes, Acts, and more decrees.
City Fathers, as their guardians
Must dot their 'i's and cross their 't's.
Is the hoo-haa never ending?
Cease, City Fathers, your refrain.
Dally not in hesitation.
Make Dee House- pristine- rise again.

Alan Bonner

4/7/03 I must congratulate the organisers of the Roman Festival on the Roodee. Great organisation and enthusiasm went into it, whlch showed in its presentation, greatly helped by the lovely weather.
Whilst in the Chester City Council tent I people asking if the amphitheatre would be excavated in the next year or two. They were told that it wouldn't be for some time as it would cost too much. This is absolute rubbish. The clearance of Dee House, salvaging good material for re-use, and the excavation with the repair of the stonework would not cost a fortune especially with the use of voluntary labour and sponsorship. The City Council have budgeted to contribute £80,000 for this work, and they would probably have change.
It is a pity that chairman Christine Russell's planning committee ever gave outline planning permission for the law court site and that subsequently her colleague, the recently deposed Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine's department contracted to rent the completed building.
It was probably all part of New Labour's Project to bury history.
We need action not words. Perhaps it might help if a dossier was produced with information about WMDs hidden on site.
Peter Moore Dutton, Tushingham Hall, near Malpas

22/8/03 In the course of my continuing interest in Chester City Council plans for developing the amphitheatre site, I have noted the council's recommended objective and action to 'fully support the excavation of the southern part of the Roman amphitheatre and the development of appropriate interpretative facilities'.
Sounds familiar? In its winter 02 / spring 03 newsletter, the city council detailed the following proposals for fulfilment during the forthcoming three years: demolish derelict Dee House, excavate parts of the amphitheatre site, build an interpretation centre around the amphitheatre.
In point of fact, the objective and action quoted in my opening paragraph were detailed in the city council's book Conservation in Chester, which was published in 1998 and described the YMCA's inability to maintain occupation of lhe Old Palace; British Telecom's decision to vacate the adjacent site on which Dee House stands; the exciting possibility to excavate the southern part of the amphitheatre site and provide an enhanced Roman heritage attraction.
In the event, David McLean Developments Ltd bought the building and land behind Dee House; the city council bought Dee House and grounds; McLean was granted planning permission to develop their land and build the new county court building. A city council spokesman admitted on the BBC You and Yours programme a mistake had been made by allowing the county court to be built; funding for the city council's project has not been identifed; Dee House has been allowed by the city council to become dilapidated; archeologists expected the full oval shape of the amphitheatre could be found except where the deep cellars under Dee House have damaged the remains.
In addition, the city council recognises the following constraints: the policy of English Heritage to refuse demolition of Dee House if a case for economic beneficial use can be demonstrated; the need to gain Government permission to demolish Dee House; the likelihood of a public enquiry before a final decision.
Given that five years have elapsed since the council's original recommendation for the amphitheatre, and six months have elapsed since the publication of its winter 02 / spring 03 newsletter, the coumcil would appear overtly optimistic.
Alan Bonner

5/9/03 In addressing the vexed question of whether to demolish or restore Dee House, attention should be given to the Steinberg Principle and to the concept of development harm.
In a 1989 high court appeal case Steinber and Sykes v Secretary of State and Another, deputy judge Lionel Read QC addressed the obligation imposed by statute on planning authorities considering proposed developments for conservation areas 'to pay special attendon to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character of the conservation area'.
Deputy judge R W Vandermeer QC, in a 1990 appeal case, addressed 'the need to consider whether harm would be caused by a proposed development'.
He concluded:
• A flnding that a proposed devalopment would enhance the conservation area almost inevitably carries with it a finding that there would be no consequent harm to the character or appearance of the area.
• A finding that a proposed development would not preserve the character or appearance of a conservation area may well involve a flnding that harm would be caused to the area.
Rulings in further high court appeal cases have demonstrated that the most likely error for the planning decision maker to make is lack of clarity in definition or task which results from either a lack of understanding of the legal requirements or from an unfortunate choice and presentation of words in the decision process.
Thus, the concept of 'harm' relates to a case where a proposed development will not, or may not, preserve or enhance a conservation area.
Application of the Steinberg Principle and the concept of harm causes headaches to many planning authorities. Paul Gover, Chester City Council's head of culture and leisure, has been reported as describing the amphitheatre issue as one of the most complex he has ever encountered.
In an attempt to square the Dee House circle, consideration should be given by planning officers, concerned groups and individual interested parties to:
• The question of harm that may occur to the amphitheatre conservation area as a whole by a proposed demolition of Dee House;
• The obligation to preserve and enhance the conservation of the area as a whole should it be proposed that Dee House be demolished.
The dilemma is clear. English Heritage has argued that permission was granted for the county court on the basis that Dee House would be retained, and that the court building was not designed to be seen as the structure which closed the view down St. John Street.
Chester City Council has argued that if Dee House were to be demolished a more worthy presentation of the amphitheatre site would become possible.
In addressing the legal morass in which they find themselves, the parties engaged in the Dee House debate may well feel an empathy with Tennyson's maxim, 'Their's not to reason why, their's but to do or die'.
Alan Bonner

On and on. At last, however, a letter that hits the nail on the head...

21/11/03 Once again we are being conned! All this talk is just a fudge, a fake, a load of flannel!
If you read the small print, you will see they are not going to excavate the amphitheatre. They are not going to demolish that hated wall which separates the one-third excavated from the two thirds still beneath the sod.
They are going to spend £500,000 of our money on conferences, and on expanding the rather irrelevant Chester Visitors Centre, and on performing 'keyhole surgery' on this amazing, unrevealed ancient monument.
This may please a handful of academics, our 'intellectual elite', but it will not satisfy us. We do not want to see the already-excavated one third re-excavated and re-excavated.
We do not want to look once again at 'five or ten per cent of the total area of the site'. This is just an excuse for doing almost nothing.
The city council owns Dee House, I believe. The massive boundary wall is our property, and it is not a listed structure. Why not demolish that hated wall? Why not undertake a full, open excavation?
City councillors, please do not underestimate us. Do not think we cannot tell the difference between a footnote in in a dusty tome and the stern reality of those tiers of ancient stone which lie beneath the grounds of Dee House?
Perhaps the problem lies in those sacred grounds. They make an amazingly convenient car park for an anonymous privileged few who are allowed to park there every day.
Who are these people? How are they involved in making the decisions about our amphitheatre?
Patrick Deedy BA, Cuppin Street Chester

For the moment at least dear reader, we end our selection of letters- but we think you've got the message by now!
Do not think, however, that the good people of Chester and beyond have stopped caring about the goings-on at the Chester amphitheatre. Not at all. We have copies of all recent correspondences on file and intend to publish them here when time and money allow.
(Your advertising, sponsorship or donations would make thinks much easier!)

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