Death threats and Nazi insults: The 'wonky skyscrapers' of Hebden Bridge

It's supposed to be the most liberal place to live in Britain - so why is a cutting-edge development in Hebden Bridge causing such a stink? Colin Drury reports.

IT is has a reputation for being one of Yorkshire's most idyllic towns; a hotpotch of art shops, cafs and traditional industries, surrounded on all four sides by some of the region's most rugged hills.

But Hebden Bridge – a place which prides itself on its radical past and which has been labelled the "fourth funkiest hotspot in the world" – appears suddenly to be a town at war with itself.

Death threats, protests and targeted vandalism have engulfed the once sleepy community of 11,000 people.

And all because of an outline planning application.The so-called wonky homes proposals were always going to be controversial.

A 10m scheme to build six "mini-skyscrapers" towering up to seven storeys over the rural town centre, it was bound to have opponents.

But the sheer strength of feeling has taken almost everyone by surprise, including those at the heart of the argument.

"It's got a little bit silly," admits Nader Fekri, the Hebden Royd Town and Calderdale Council member who chaired a public meeting attended by more than 300 debaters. "When you're talking death threats and vandalism, that's ridiculous, it helps nobody.

"Opposition to the plans is massive – and rightly so. I think people are annoyed because they feel these plans are being implemented above their head, and they're lashing out at that."

Lashing out is right.

Although Calderdale Council's Planning Committee has received more than 3,000 separate objections to the scheme, it appears not all opponents have been happy simply registering their disquiet through official channels.

Several supporters of the scheme – which would create 24 apartments, 24 houses, a number of shops and, crucially, a vast underground car park – have been sent letters threatening their lives and businesses.

Tim Downs, of Brahm PR, which is promoting the development, was targeted over the phone in an incident which police are taking extremely seriously.

"During the conversation his exact words to me were, 'People like you aren't welcome and you will be drummed out of Hebden Bridge in a wooden box with the lid nailed down, do you understand me?'," says Mr

Downs. "I asked him if he was threatening me and he said I could take it any way I wanted, then he hung up."

In another chilling indicator of the level of feeling, a brick was thrown through the window of Hebden Bridge-based architects Studio Baad, while workers were inside.

But its not just the objectors who have allowed their campaign to be tainted by a dark undercurrent.

David Fletcher, the developer and public face of the project, accepts he was unwise to compare an opponent to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' leading propagandist, at a public meeting. However, he insists the project would be the final piece of a jigsaw to transform Hebden Bridge from a near-abandoned town in the 1960s when he was chairman of

the Hebden Royd Urban and District Council planning committee, into a now thriving mini-opolis.

"This patch of land and its little car park is an eyesore," he says. "So much has been done to improve Hebden Bridge over the years – I should know, I've lived here all my life – but this remains ugly and run-down, and all we want to do is give the place the exciting project it deserves."

The land was first earmarked for development more than five years ago when, under pressure form local businesses, owners Calderdale Council decided to vastly increase the car park's capacity.

This, after all, went the reasoning, was a town with an economy which was increasingly reliant on day trippers and tourists visiting the range of independent shops and galleries. And parking had long been at a premium.

So far, so uncontroversial.

But rather than build a multi-storey, councillors chose to tender the project. The terms were simple: design a development which would pay for itself and increase parking. A nationwide competition was won by local firm Studio Baad which has since been finalising the designs under the umbrella of the Hebden Royd Development Partnership.

"The town needs parking, otherwise it will choke – that was agreed five years ago," says Mr Fletcher. "What we're doing is taking that need and creating something truly innovative, truly radical, and truly Hebden Bridge.

"The other option is an ugly multi-storey paid for out of council coffers.

"Rejecting this plan is a rejection of all this town's historic values, of welcoming visitors, of embracing radical change. I understand the need for conservation but there is a difference between that and fossilisation, allowing the town to die."

He argues the six blocks, which will rise like stepping stones, would not be out of place in the town because houses on the surrounding hills will have a higher purchase.

The proposals have also been applauded by design experts across the county.

Gail Appleyard, a lecturer at Leeds Metropolitan University, told one public meeting: "Towns have to evolve and not stagnate.

"This is progressive and visionary. This is not a twee village."

Indeed, in a town where the shops have agreed a ban on plastic bags for environmental reasons, the development would be highly sustainable, with solar power and rain water used to help power the buildings.

Perhaps most importantly, a vast underground car park, home to 160 spaces and complete with a Scandinavian-style mechanical stacker would be created.

Yet, for some residents, the price to pay for the extra capacity – which would actually work out at just 55 extra spaces when residential parking and the current car park capacity is taken off – is too great.

They say the disruption caused by the development of such a vast building could damage the town's economic viability for years.

Steve Murty, chair of Hebden Bridge Business Association, says shops feared being crippled as the heart of town could be effectively shut down for up to six months. And, coming just when many businesses are recovering from the upheaval caused by a major pedestrianisation of the town centre, the timing could not be worse.

Anthony Rae, spokesman for the highly organised Garden Street Action Group, says: "You can't just impose a building on us like this and expect it not to damage business.

"Our contention is that while businesses want parking solutions, 95 per cent are opposed to the disruption.

"It would drive away customers, it could ruin the town."

As a result, the group have launched a campaign claiming the extra car parking capacity is not needed because, they say, they have identified enough room for an extra 200 spaces in the town.

"It's too big, it's too much and it's not even needed," adds Mr Rae. "We don't argue it's a lovely design but more than 3,000 objectors can't be wrong.

"It's nothing to do with nimby-ism. This people of Hebden Bridge accept modernisation, they embrace it – but this is the wrong kind of project."

The group are supported by Hebden Royd Town Council who have asked Calderdale Council to refuse planning permission but, with planning officers expected to recommend the scheme, the proposals are still very much a possibility.

A special planning committee to decide the fate of Garden Street will be held on September 29.

Councillors expect a record turn out and have changed the venue from the Halifax Town Hall to The Kings Centre, Park Road, Halifax.

Until then, Hebden Bridge remains a town very much divided.