‘A setback’ council leader reacts to Preston Guild Hall concrete fears

Posted on - 11th September, 2023 - 6:00pm | Author - | Posted in - City Centre, Politics, Preston City Centre, Preston Council, Preston News, What's On in Preston
Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston
Preston Guild Hall in Lancaster Road Pic: Blog Preston

The construction material dubbed “crumbly concrete” – which caused a chaotic start to the new academic year at dozens of schools across the country – is now suspected to be present in the roof of part of Preston’s Guild Hall.

It has brought to a halt preparation work for the venue’s long-awaited comeback gig in November, pending a specialist assessment by structural engineers.

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) revealed last month, the hall was poised to host the rearranged Preston Weekender – the first entertainment event at the attraction since it was mothballed more than four years ago.

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That could now be in doubt amid fears that the experts required to carry out a full survey of the building will be at full stretch dealing with the raft of other public facilities in need of inspection to identify what is officially known as “reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete” – or RAAC.

It is understood that because the potentially affected areas of the Guild Hall are currently closed in any case, the venue could find itself at the back of the queue for assessment and any remedial work needed to make it safe.

RAAC can collapse without warning when it reaches the end of its lifespan. It was most widely used between the 1960s and 1980s – and the Guild Hall was constructed in the early 1970s.

The authority says that it has had to take a “safety first approach” by closing off the Grand Hall and Charter Theatre auditoria – the two areas where RAAC is suspected. The rest of the Guild Hall building remains open.

The Preston Weekender was due to be staged at the venue on 18th and 19th November, having been postponed from its originally-planned outdoor dates on the Flag Market in August.

Preston City Council leader Matthew Brown told the LDRS that the news was “disappointing”, but that the authority was being “as positive as we can”.

“Obviously, the first concern is to ensure that the public are safe – and [the RAAC] is not within the part of the building that remains open.

“We need to assess what the situation is and take the next steps from there. This is something that we didn’t expect, but in many ways, it’s good we’ve found it, just in case there might be some issue in terms of health and safety.

“The intention is that we can get the venue open as feasibly [soon] as we can, but this is obviously a setback, there’s no two ways about it. We’ve got to deal with it and when we do know what’s what, we’ll let the public know,” Cllr Brown said.

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Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Preston City Council added: “We are taking a cautious and ‘safety first’ approach by securing the Grand Hall and Charter Theatre auditoria, until specialist consultant structural engineers can carry out a more detailed inspection.

“Unfortunately, we understand that this may take some time, as the experts required to carry out this very particular type of work are naturally prioritising school inspections.

“As a responsible council, the safety of the public and our colleagues must be our number one priority.

“The venues themselves are not currently in use, but we have been working inside both on a range of safety and associated works. A small number of future events were planned for this year, and we are in discussion with the organisers about these.

“The remainder of the Guild Hall, including the ground floor trading units and Harris Library, remain open for business.”

The venue was mothballed four-and-a-half-years ago after a legal wrangle sparked by the collapse into administration of the company that was operating it at the time.

Preston City Council retook control of the building and, after a settlement in March this year, was finally able to start work on bringing the 50-year-old facility back into use.

Cllr Brown at the Guild Hall
Cllr Matthew Brown Leader of Preston City Council at the Guild Hall Preston

It had been hoped that the Preston Weekender event would act as a showcase and springboard for the hall and potentially help attract a private sector operator to take it over and secure its long-term future – although councillors are yet to decide the exact model that will be adopted.

At the time of the announcement of the gig, Preston City Council’s cabinet member for culture and arts, Peter Kelly, said that the event would have to be “top end” and done “with bells and whistles” in order to achieve that aim.

The safety risk posed by RAAC has been known about since the 2000s, but until this summer, it was considered to be of imminent danger only if it had reached a “critical” state. However, government advice changed after the collapse of a beam in a school which had not been deemed to have reached that end state when it fell.

Since then, five other regional theatres, including The National Theatre, have all been forced to shut pending further investigations over the possible use of RAAC.

Our Lady’s Catholic High School in Fulwood had to delay the start of its academic year by a week after RAAC was discovered – and was only partially reopening for some year groups on Monday.

Nearby Fulwood Academy also stayed shut for the first two days of the autumn term as a precaution to allow a second assessment of its site to be carried out – but it was given the all-clear and reopened last Wednesday.

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