Alternative options for council offices

Cheapside Plait Hall 1907 (Hobbs)

[The Luton Reporter: Tuesday, September 2nd, 1919]

In the early part of the week it looked as if it would not be very long before Luton Town Hall could be described as having been literally brought down like a box of bricks. What the fire left standing of the building on the Manchester Street corner has all been razed to the level of the ground as far as the Salvation Army barracks, but on the Upper George Street side the work of demolition commenced over the committee rooms has been held up.

The explanation is that a difference of opinion has arisen as to the site on which provision should be made for the carrying on of Council work. The premises secured from Messrs E. Ward & Co for the highways and education departments are available only until Christmas, and the provision made in the public library building for the food office work had proved hopelessly inconvenient and inadequate, and will be quite impossible to cope with the demands made by the new rationing scheme.

In these circumstances the need is paramount for a set of premises to accommodate every branch of municipal activity, and the Deputy Mayor, Aldermen Arnold and Wilkinson, and Councillor Attwood, have had a fruitless hunt for a temporary home that will meet the requirements.

The Wesleyan Hall and Sunday School in Chapel Street, Messrs Welch's extensive block of premises in Gordon Street, and Messrs Connor's premises at the foot of the bridge steps used for so long as the Admiralty building, have all been sought for, but none are available, and the special committee have been driven to consider the best possible utilisation of Corporation property.

A visit of inspection to the Cheapside Plait Hall has naturally created a feeling of uneasy misapprehension in the minds of the tenants there, and from conversations with two or three, a Reporter representative ascertained that they had lost no time in making representations to the local authority concerning the predicament in which disturbance would involve them.

It is just 50 years this year since the Plaits Hall were first opened as a plait market, and, although the purpose for which it was originally established has long ceased to exist, there are still firms who use the Cheapside hall as a centre for dealing in and storing plait and sundry other materials used in the staple trade.

There are 24 shops or offices along the front and down the two sides of the hall, and all but two are let to tenants, while some of the tanan ts also share with the Corporation the use of the storage space in the centre of the building.

We understand there are nine different firms concerned, and all but two are associated with he staple trade. One of the plait merchants had had his place at the Plait Hall some 35 years, another tenant had been there over 40 years, first as an employee and for about 17 years on his own account, and others have been there nearly 20 years.

Another aspect of the matter was put forward by the representative of Messrs Pickford & Co, who have had their Luton headquarters at the Plait Hall for a number of years.

“We have stored in shops round the hall from 30 to 35 van loads of furniture,” he said. “This includes the furniture of at least 20 servicemen or ex-servicemen who have been demobilised and are still looking out for houses. For the storage of much of this furniture the Corporation is morally responsible because we are practically acting as the official storers for them.

“When local authorities were charged with the duty of finding storage accommodation for the furniture of men called to the colours, the Corporation consulted us and decided we could cope with the demand, and several of the people whose furniture we are storing were referred to us from the Town Hall. We have no other facilities for storage locally, and we cannot conceive what is going to happen to it if it is moved from here.”

The anxiety of the tenants has not been allayed, but still they have hopes that their disturbance may be obviated. On Wednesday evening the members of the special committee met the Tolls Committee at the Plait Hall and presented their suggestions, and, in view of the cost of the scheme proposed and the difficulties presented, the Borough Engineers was directed to get out particulars of an alternative scheme.

The first proposal is understood to involved an expenditure of between £2,000 and £3,000 in so adapting the Cheapside hall that the central floor space can be utilised as a hall for a Council Chamber, and the intervening space between this and the existing offices connected up so as to provide a double row of offices along each side.

The alternative suggestion is to make the education offices [in Upper George Street] habitable, and place a military hut on some other temporary erection on the vacant land adjoining which would give accommodation for meetings and offices.

For the latter scheme, it is claimed it will obviate any disturbance of tenants and the loss of an annual revenue of between £200 and £250, but against it there is the argument that it will involved the greater outlay, provide less convenient accommodation and mean an expenditure of money that must of necessity be in the nature of waste.

It is argues that whatever is put up on the Upper George Street site will have to be pulled down again whenever a new Town Hall is erected, whereas money expended on the Plait Hall will render it of greater value for letting purposes when the time comes for the Corporation to vacate it.

Members of the committee seem to be agreed that it is a difficult problem to know what to do for the best, and it is probable the figures of cost got out by the Borough Engineer will be the determining factor.

A suggestion that use should be made of the Waller Street Plait Hall has been definitely ruled out as impracticable, but it has been suggested that in the event of the adoption of the Cheapside scheme provision might be made for removing to the Waller Street hall the furniture at present stored in the other building.