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Appeal: Bristol artists’ collective must make way for offices

Bristol / iStock

The owner of a listed working men’s club in Bristol who leased it to a popular artists’ collective as a ‘stop-gap’ has won permission to convert the building into offices, after persuading an inspector that his plans would best preserve the heritage asset.

LOCATIONSt Pauls, Bristol
AUTHORITYBristol City Council

The appeal concerned a working men’s club in St Pauls, central Bristol, which had occupied two grade-II listed Georgian townhouses since the late 19th century. 

In June 2016, the club closed owing to declining membership. In March 2017, the owner of the buildings granted a short-term lease to a group of 40 artists and musicians, and it reopened as the Brunswick Club.

At the time, the landlord told the Bristol Post: “In this day and age, with all the government cuts to the arts, it’s good to use underperforming assets like this listed building for altruistic purposes in the relative short term – because empty buildings do fall into disrepair and it also secures them.”

In April 2018, however, the owner applied to the council for permission to convert the buildings into flexible office space, removing its dance hall, skittle alley, billiard room and basement bar. After receiving more than 300 objections, the council rejected the scheme. The subsequent appeal led to a four-day inquiry convened by inspector A J Mageean in March 2019.

Although it vacated the premises the week before the inquiry when its lease expired, the artists’ collective indicated that it had a “strong interest” in continuing to occupy the premises.

Mageean acknowledged that during the relatively short period since the closure of the working men’s club the premises had become a “much-valued cultural venue ... contributing to the diverse creative culture ... that makes Bristol unique”. 

The collective had successfully accommodated more than 40 artists and provided a catalyst for collaborative work across a range of art forms, she noted, and as a venue was attended by nearly 5,000 people.

Mageean noted that the collective had indicated its desire to return, and had attracted “significant external funding” from the Arts Council and others. Notwithstanding this funding, she said, it was “difficult to see that a long lease could be secured at a commercially realistic level”.

She rejected suggestions that the appellant had engaged in “art-washing” – when a developer seeks to support artists in order to prime an area for more profitable development – by leasing the building to the art collective for a short period. He was satisfied that the use was only ever intended by the appellant as a “stop-gap measure”, calling it “an eminently practical ‘win-win’ arrangement”.

Considering the proposed office use, Mageean acknowledged that the local policies seeking to protect community facilities covered a wide range of uses, noting that “in some circumstances employment uses can contribute to community cohesion”. However, she considered, “any community benefit would be of secondary importance to the primary objective of letting commercial floor space”.

Turning to the heritage value of the premises, however, the inspector noted that there had been “underinvestment in the fabric of the buildings for some time”, including the abandonment of part of the upper floors, which had harmed their significance.

In her conclusion, Mageean commented that the building’s role in “hosting the development of the art collective as a significant component in the city's cultural profile” was not to be underestimated. However, she continued, that use had “not arrested the decline of [its] historic fabric”.

The proposed conversion, on the other hand, would “secure the active conservation” of the buildings, and therefore represented their optimum viable use. Concluding that the protection and restoration of the designated heritage assets outweighed the local policy objective of protecting community facilities, she allowed the appeal.

The inspector’s report – case reference 3209837 – can be read here.

Image credit | iStock