Poster booths

Update November 2018:

We have previously written about the dilapidated poster booths on our website. We regularly get asked about them and now seek to explain the latest status from our point of view. We continue to work in the background to progress a refurbishment plan and it is taking far longer than anticipated to get things done. You may have noticed that to improve the appearance of the booths we have recently removed all the fly posters, along with many thousands of pins and staples, and have repainted the wooden panels.

Poster booths before and after our recent clean up exercise

This is an interim measure only, and our volunteers have done this purely as concerned citizens of the town. The WGC Society currently have no responsibility or jurisdiction over them. We were just fed up, as most people are, at the eyesore they have become on one of the most important street scenes in the entire town.

We hope that people won’t begin fly posting on them again; nobody has any right to do this in the Town Centre and it is effectively unlicensed advertising. To quote the WHBC website “All forms of advertisement are covered by the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisement) (England) Regulations 2007 and are subject to conditions. Display of an advertisement without the necessary consent is an offence.”

So what is the current situation regarding the refurbishment?

The Society has been informed it may be able to purchase the two remaining booths from the Crown Estate. The Crown Estate defines itself as follows: “The Crown Estate is a collection of lands and holdings in the United Kingdom belonging to the British monarch as a corporation sole, making it the “Sovereign’s public estate”, which is neither government property nor part of the monarch’s private estate.” The booths reverted to the Crown Estate following the previous owner of the booths, a local business, going into administration in 2006. That business originally purchased the booths from the New Towns Commission, not the Borough or County Council who have never owned or managed them.

Additionally, The Crown Estate have also told us that the “land becomes ‘subject to escheat’ at common law. The effect of this is that there is no ‘owner’ of the land in any conventionally understood sense, but the Sovereign becomes entitled to take back possession of the land…By longstanding convention, properties that are subject to escheat fall to be dealt with by The Crown Estate.”

Also that “The Crown Estate are the body that can assist in granting a new freehold title to an appropriate person or body…The Crown Estate does not propose to take any action which might be construed as an act of management, possession or ownership in relation to property that may be deemed subject to escheat, since to do so may incur upon it liabilities with which the property is, or may become, encumbered.”

This is the main reason they have remained devoid of any maintenance or management; as you can deduce from the above they are in a sort of legal limbo. Consequently, other parties such as the County and Borough Councils do not recognise the booths, albeit that the booths, as part of the street scene under their remit, and so again they are not maintained.

The Society is pushing for the legal title of the booth sites to be re-issued but this will of course cost money, not least in legal fees. We will have to pay the Crown Estates’ legal fees, our legal fees, and the actual purchase price. We plan to make a bid to the National Lottery Heritage Fund (HLF) to cover purchase and refurbishment and have been in dialogue with them for some time. However, getting a funding grant before we can prove definitive ownership of the thing to be funded is also a problem to be overcome with the HLF.

As if all that wasn’t enough, when we do gain legal title we immediately become responsible/liable for them in the streetscape. This means we have to appropriately insure them and make sure they are compliant with any environmental regulations. This includes the regulations that would apply in relation to any refurbishment done in situ, Health and Safety etc.
If they are to be removed to be refurbished this adds very significantly to the costs. We also then need a licence from the County Council to remove them for a period and need to make good the holes that will be left behind. This also adds extra cost. It will be far simpler and faster to refurbish them in situ, if that is possible from a regulatory point of view.

Once they are refurbished what then?

The booths have no rateable value currently. Provided they don’t carry commercial advertising, this will continue. Also a condition of the lottery funding is that they have a strong heritage and educational element, we are keen to support that aim, of course. We intend that the refurbished booths will have a wealth of information about the town’s history and evolution and will link to further sources of information about the town. The HLF demands that “as a result of our investment, people will have learned about heritage.” They require us to plan for who will learn and the activities or resources that will be needed to enable people to learn about the town’s heritage. They say “It is about offering opportunities for everyone to develop understanding of heritage in an active way”. We are keen to work with local schools to satisfy this requirement and have been in contact with many of them, with a mixed response so far.

We are also exploring the idea of an augmented reality phone/tablet application with a local innovator who is passionate about the town and keen to extend the story of the town into the cutting edge of the virtual online world. This may not be deliverable ultimately, but it is certainly worth exploring as there is no cost to the project to do so. Nothing physical is needed to deliver this, and it would be developed and funded via the local innovator, not the WGC Society.

Once they are refurbished there will be an ongoing management function. This isn’t something the Society is set up to take on. Therefore, we are exploring how best this can be done. We will have to detail exactly how this will work and who will be involved as part of the HLF funding bid. This is a complex situation and without agreement and commitment from all the stakeholders such as the Borough and County Council etc, any bid for funds is unlikely to be successful.

These are the main issues we are progressing with the booths which were designed by Louis de Soissons who was the designer of much of the town we know today. When they were unveiled back in 1951 as part of the Festival of Britain who could have envisaged that this is the predicament they would end up in. One piece of good news, however, is that following a recent inspection it appears that the metalwork of the booth pillars is structurally intact and hopefully doesn’t need replacing, just rubbing down and suitably recoating. The domes and the panel do of course need significant work, the side panels will certainly be replaced.

We as the WGC Society hope that this update goes some way to explain the current situation. Our Committee remains committed to getting the booths reinstated for the benefit of the town for current and future generations. We cannot achieve this alone however, we are reliant on partnering with other local bodies in order to make the whole thing happen. This of course adds to the complexity of the project, but it is nevertheless achievable in our view.

Update December 2009: The Society is clear that the poster booths in Howardsgate should never have been sold.  This has proved to be a disaster as the entrepreneur who bought them subsequently went bankrupt; and the land on which they are located has now reverted to the Crown Estate.  This complicates any proposal about their future.

Neglected poster booth in Howardsgate

Neglected poster booth in Howardsgate

However, these structures were designed by Louis de Soissons and represent something that is different about the town centre and the Society believes they should be  retained for this purpose.  The Society is supported in this regard by the Chamber of Commerce.

After some nagging, the Council did finally ask the Society what should be done with these poster booths that have graced the town centre since the fifties.

The Society concluded that there was no point in looking at these structures from a commercial viewpoint as, in its opinion, there was no appreciable commercial return that could be had from these structures other than scrap metal.  So we suggested to the Council that this avenue should not be pursued any further.  We also said that these structures had no sale value other than a nominal one as we suspected that their removal cost, and restoration of the pavement, would exceed their scrap value.

Derelict poster booth in Cole Green Lane

Derelict poster booth in Cole Green Lane

We suggested to the Council that their use should be altered so that their servicing, in terms of loading the four faces with material from time to time, is eliminated as this is extremely costly.  True, it might have been possible to find some hard working individual in the community who might have been willing to do this for community use but frankly, after the first flush of enthusiasm, we felt this too would soon expire.

So we proposed that the four faces be removed and replaced in such a way that the form and bulk of the poster booths remains the same.   We see the altered four faces then replaced with four separate “interpretation” boards highlighting the following:

  1. A town map highlighting Parkway and Howardsgate as well as the town centre; and
  2. A statement about the town in terms of its importance in terms of architectural and urban design; and
  3. A statement about Ebenezer Howard and Louis de Soissons that link into the history of the town; and
  4. Some statement that explains the brief history of the place and what this town is about.

If the structures are to remain exactly where they are, then there is a case for having up to eight different faces to these structures and the Society indicated that it would be happy to talk to the Council about these.  However, we suggested that one could be usefully moved towards a location between the Howard Centre and John Lewis – future planning of this area permitting – and we think that the best spot would be between the Natwest and Nationwide buildings.

The outcome that we then see is one where structures designed by Louis de Soissons are not just retained but used to shout about the place – something we think is lacking in the town centre.

The Society has discussed the matter with the Louis de Soissons Partnership and they agree that it would be a disaster if these structures were lost to the town.  Indeed, the Society thinks that many would regard their loss as an act of vandalism.