Calderdale Council wants to move Halifax’s Central Library and replace it with shops, but some locals are not taking the plan lying down. Fiona Russell reports.
IF this plot were used in a book, it would be an epic, says Halifax’s Labour MP Linda Riordan. “It’s had everything – twists and turns, sub-plots and intrigue.” And the tale involves campaigners who say they will fight tooth and nail to the finish.
Calderdale Council’s Cabinet has recommended the demolition of the town’s Central Library and a final decision will be made on November 28. Meanwhile, Don’t Bulldoze Our Library (DBOL), the group set up in 2009 to oppose the proposal, promises to protest and demonstrate right up until the last moment.
But aren’t libraries threatened everywhere? And does anyone really care? To paraphrase actor Stephen Tompkinson: “Libraries, remember them love: dinosaurs, dodos, libraries?”
And anyway the town isn’t losing its library altogether – the proposal is to replace it with a new library at a cost of £10m.
This will open before the old library closes, promises Coun Tim Swift, the Labour leader of Calderdale Council: “It will have to – we can’t move the archive without somewhere appropriate to move it to.”
This is clearly about more than books – not that books are unimportant. In fact they’re the lifeblood of the protesters.
Esme Dyson, who calls the library “my university”, has used Calderdale’s libraries for 70 years. “But it wasn’t until my 50s that I began to use the Central Library. I’ve got a lot of pleasure out of it. In fact, I see my life as a book. I’m in the last section of it now, but I’m still learning.”
Rewind to 2009 when the scheme was first mooted. Northgate House, the council HQ, which stands next to the library, was deemed to be no longer fit for purpose. The then Tory-led council proposed to demolish both buildings, thereby freeing up a large site which could be redeveloped with a view to attracting larger retailers to the town.
But there was huge opposition. DBOL rapidly emerged and, with the aid of a petition signed by more than 16,500 people, the council’s Labour group, plus support from MP Linda Riordan and former MP Alice McMahon, it won the argument. The council backed down.
Or so it seemed until the middle of last year, when it became clear that the idea had never really gone away. The new Labour-Liberal administration was revisiting the plan and, to the dismay of the campaigners, it was resurrected.
“Things are different now,” says Coun Swift. “The Labour group opposed the relocation in 2009 because the proposed site [the Broad Street development – a mix of restaurants, bars, a gym and a hotel] wasn’t suitable. But then a site close to the Piece Hall became possible.”
There are other considerations, too. The Northgate site will be far more profitable with the land the Central Library stands on, and the council found out how much the refurbishment of the current library would cost.
“This scheme is financially neutral,” says Coun Swift.
What’s the problem? Well it goes something like this.
Halifax Central Library is a rare and wonderful thing – a really loved, well-used, modern (it opened in 1983) public building. Pay a visit any weekday afternoon, and you’ll see its many faces. It’s a place to do homework, read the newspapers, borrow a blockbuster, research a family tree, look for a job or do some photocopying.
You can browse on Facebook, wander among the CDs, or simply spend an hour reading before going on somewhere else.
In the evening Weightwatchers, and the Local History Group meet downstairs. The three well-used meeting rooms also house the libraries of Halifax Antiquarian Society and the Scientific Society, both of which meet here regularly.
It’s a warm, welcoming building – nothing special, but functional, and remarkably spacious. “It was designed in-house, by the council’s architect Alan Parkinson,” says Dr John Hargreaves, historian of Halifax and a member of DBOL. “The angular design was intended to complement the HBOS building, and the stone is high quality Whitkirk, stone which has bronzed with age.”
Hargreaves likes the building and the way it has gradually blended into the townscape, which is composed of a remarkable range of buildings, from the medieval Minster to the present day.
The decision to revisit the demolition idea dismays and bewilders him. “It’s a needless waste of a perfectly usable building that is loved and cherished by all.”
He points out how much the Muslim community of Halifax appreciate it. “Men come here to read the papers, whilst their wives are shopping in the Borough Market, and they are happy for their teenagers to come here to study after school. It’s a safe place. There’s no alcohol and it’s close to the bus station.”
The proximity to the bus station is crucial, says the historian: “It means people don’t have to walk uphill or across cobbles, and it is safe in the evening for parts of the community who might feel vulnerable in the town centre after dark.”
Lou Scott Thompson, mother of 15-month-old Accalia, agrees. “I don’t drive and I’m seven-months pregnant. The library is really convenient because it’s near the bus station. The Piece Hall site would be much more difficult. Cobbles are a nightmare with a buggy, and right now they’d be dangerous for me.”
She and Accalia attend storytelling sessions in the children’s library. “It’s a great place to meet other mums, and there’s a nice range of cafés nearby. I also like the way the library’s a mixed environment – all cultures, all ages, doing all sorts. I just can’t understand it. All it needs is a bit of a refurb and a lick of paint. Why do they want to knock it down?”
But the council seem determined. Despite having already consulted the public twice, they decided this January to spend £60,000 on a survey from Ipsos MORI.
The survey presented two options: Plan A, demolition of the library and Northgate House and its replacement with a shopping centre and a new library close to the Piece Hall; and Plan B, refurbishment of the present building and the creation of a green space where Northgate House now stands.
It was mailed out to 5,000 people and 1,256 people replied – 39 per cent preferring option A, 21 per cent selecting option B and 40 per cent preferring neither. But even then the devil is in the detail. The responses have been weighted so as to represent Calderdale as a whole.
This means that, because so few under 25s responded, each of their votes is worth 10 times an equivalent vote by someone over the age of 65.
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but Coun Swift is convinced: “I wouldn’t be recommending it [Plan A] to council if I didn’t think people across Calderdale wanted this solution.” The protesters, he says, are “a small but very vocal group of mainly older people, (who are) passionate about the town centre....” whereas “...the strongest message coming out of the Ipsos MORI report is that people across Calderdale think there is not enough retail choice.”
“I’m not against retail,” says a visibly exasperated John Hargreaves. “But I think there’s plenty of scope for improving the retail offer in Halifax without demolishing the library.”
Former MP Alice Mahon says: “We’re in a recession. What happens if they can’t find a large retailer? It’s a risky plan, with precious little support.”
But then, she points out, these questions are becoming more difficult to resolve. “You used to know what people thought through the letters page of the Halifax Courier. But now the Courier is a weekly, and council meetings are not being reported.”
She goes on: “In public life when, you come up against controversy, unless it’s a matter of conscience (like war), it’s a game of give and take. I can’t understand the hard-line being taken. It’s treating people as idiots.”
Earlier this year, Linda Riordan wrote an article about the library issue in the Morning Star. The council, she said, were in danger of “...ignoring the first law of holes – stop digging if you are in one. This is especially true if you are trying to make one in the middle of the town centre and the public doesn’t want it.”
A final decision is being made this week, but that doesn’t mean the story is necessarily over.
History of a library
Halifax Central Library is one of 22 public libraries in Calderdale. From 1890 until 1983 the library was housed in the magnificent mid-19th century Belle Vue Mansion, which had been built by Sir Francis Crossley of Crossley carpets at Dean Clough.
The Northgate library was opened in 1983 by author Lady Antonia Fraser, who is a supporter of the campaign to keep the building open.
Halifax Antiquarian Society held its first meeting in Halifax Mechanics Institute in January 1901. Its archive moved to purpose-built accommodation in the Northgate library when it opened.
The Local Studies section of the library houses a unique collection of about 12,000 items, including books, pamphlets, images and much more, concerning the history and development of the Calderdale area. The nucleus of the collection was originally part of the private library of Joseph Horsfall Turner, a local historian and writer.