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Guildhall

Making the Guildhall Fully Inclusive for All

Abingdon Guildhall dates back to the 1400s. It is a unique, historic building but one which, being built over so many different levels, cannot be fully accessed by many people in the community. It needs to be made fully inclusive for all.

The Guildhall hosts the Visitor and Community Information Centre which is open Monday to Saturday 9.30am to 3pm and is accessed via the Bridge Street (Roysse Court) entrance. Council meetings take place in the Roysse Room.

However  the Guildhall is not currently available for hire due to a major improvement/ refurbishment project and an update on the Project appears below. 

Guildhall Development Project – update: Building works commenced in January 2018

On 8th January 2018 the Council commenced building works in relation to its improvements to the historic rooms of the Guildhall.  There are three major parts to the building work.

  1. An extension is being built to the rear of the Roysse Room and the Roysse Court building. This will provide ground floor toilet facilities for the Guildhall, Information Centre visitors and will also provide toilet facilities for the first time for customers of the Registry Office.  Importantly this work  will make the Roysse Room a much more accessible room.  The extension will also provide a link which will reunite the Guildhall with the Roysse Court offices.  Immediately to the rear of the Roysse Court offices a purpose-built archive (muniment) room will be built which will enable us to return the town’s historic archives, dating back to 1556, to Abingdon.  Next to the archive room will be a reading room which can be used by the much-valued  Honorary Town Archivist, Jackie Smith, and visitors who wish to inspect the archives.
  2. There are major improvement works to the reception area and a replacement of the old heavy doors on the Bridge Street entrance with automatic doors, enabling all visitors, including those in wheelchairs or with pushchairs, to access the building unassisted.  Looking ahead to the Council’s plans for the Old Magistrates’ Court, the internal door between the Guildhall and the Old Magistrates’ Court has been reopened and a platform lift will enable disabled people and those with walking difficulties to access the Old Magistrates’ Court unaided for the first time. This will also reunite the Old Magistrates Court with the other Guildhall rooms of which it has  always been an integral part.
  3. Improvements to the Roysse Court Gardens.  The rather tatty and tired paving will be replaced and the wall fronting on to Bridge Street will be repaired.  The steps on the south side of the gardens will be taken away so that level access is achieved and the area is fully accessible.  We will be placing more seating in the area for people to enjoy the gardens in the heart of the town centre and lighting of the exterior of the Guildhall at night will make the area more visually attractive as well as improving security. 

In addition to these major building works there are also other important developments which are planned including improvements to the commercial kitchen, provision of Wi-Fi throughout the building, a proper Hearing Loop system for those with hearing difficulties, improvements to the heating system, replacement furniture and equipment, security improvements (including CCTV for everyone’s safety) and a new display cabinet for the town treasures in the Roysse Room.

All the above works should be completed in June so that we can make the Roysse Room available for hire in the summer of 2018.

The Old Magistrates' Court

There are exciting plans for the Old Magistrates’ Court.  This is currently vacant but the building work which has started will make this area fully accessible to the wider community, including those in wheelchairs and with walking difficulties. The plan is that this part of the building will soon house some of the town’s Museum exhibits and treasures and it is planned that the area be used for exhibitions.  

To give context to the plans for the Old Magistrates' Court the Council very much regrets that, with the exception of the basement and the undercroft, the Museum at the Old County Hall is not accessible for those in wheelchairs or indeed to anybody with walking difficulties.  It is timely to remind ourselves that what was perhaps a once in a lifetime opportunity to make the building accessible was, in 2009, scuppered by English Heritage (EH) who, at the last minute and following a planning application having been submitted to the District Council with the agreement of the EH regional office, objected to the plans for an external tower lift to the Sessions Hall, a lift which had attracted Heritage Lottery Funding.  The Council's plans in the Old Magistrates’ Court would go some way towards rectifying this position by allowing more people to access the Museum collections.  We would also be intending to return a substantial amount of the Museum’s collections which are currently held at the Standlake Museum Resource Centre back into Abingdon which will yield a financial saving. 

Making the Guildhall fully inclusive for the future

The Council is aware that there is always a balance to be struck between access to buildings/ services and conservation.  However at present it is not possible to access most of the Guildhall, i.e. the Council Chamber, the Abbey Room, the Bear Room and the Mayor’s Parlour, if you are in a wheelchair, if you are a mother with a buggy or if you have difficulty walking. The Council is very proud of the heritage which we have inherited but there is no access to the building for many of our townspeople.  This is not right.

Currently access is via an old staircase, not particularly well-constructed and not in particularly good condition. The staircase is, even for those who can climb it, difficult to negotiate with uneven steps, a low balustrade and only one side for support.  The Council’s proposal is to remove the staircase and install a lift which would serve the historic rooms so the Guildhall becomes fully inclusive, and then at the same time to rebuild, in a sensitive design, a staircase which is more fit for purpose and for the 21st Century. 

The pre-planning advice from Historic England (HE), who took over some of  English Heritage's roles in 2015, raises strong objections to the Council’s plans. It is not clear as to how detailed HE’s consideration of the historic staircase was but they did come back with some suggestions as to how access could be obtained to the historic Guildhall.  These include HE's suggestion to access the Council Chamber by knocking down the outside staircase and installing in its place a lift tower by which a disabled person could enter the Council Chamber; and the installation of a platform lift in the corridor between the Bear Room and the Parlour. The Council has serious concerns as to how these suggestions would work “on the ground” and they are not good solutions for those who have difficulty accessing the building.  There may be some surprise from residents that there are proposals from HE to knock down the exnernal  staircase which, whilst only dating from the 1950s, is very much part of the Abingdon street scene.

The Town Council takes the concerns of Historic England seriously and has consequently commissioned independent experts, Asset Heritage Consultancy of Wolfson College, Oxford,  to report on the significance of the existing staircase.  At the same time the Council has serious concerns regarding whether the current staircase is fit for purpose, inclusive and safe for all users and is taking advice in relation to these aspects.  When reports are received back and considered the Council will then be able to make a decision on the way forward to make the Guildhall fully accessible and a decision can be taken regarding whether the Council is able to make the Council Chamber, the Abbey Room and the Bear Room available for hire in the summer of 2018.

The Abbey Hall

In the years prior to it being unavailable for hire the cost of running the Guildhall complex was in the region of £200,000.

Unfortunately the Abbey Hall was greatly underused for many years.

In 2013/14 – which represents a typical year before some of the customers were making arrangements to go elsewhere - there were 198 hires of the Abbey Hall – not even four a week.

  • Some of the customers were in the Abbey Hall simply due to convenience or reasons of access rather than requiring a room of that size or the facilities available in that space. 88 of the hires could have been accommodated elsewhere in Guildhall, leaving 110 hires, barely two a week.
  • 60 hires (almost a third) related to the Ceroc dance group who, on occasion, also used the Council Chamber and have, since the Abbey Hall has been unavailable, used other premises.
  • There were only three regular hirers of the Abbey Hall (regular defined as 12 or more a year) of which just one was an Abingdon-based community group.
  • The number of Abingdon residents using and benefiting from the Abbey Hall was relatively small.

The Abbey Hall is a 1960s addition the Guildhall, a building of its time and one which poses many challenges. The challenges of the building include: numerous different levels, a difficult configuration and the age of the building meaning a need for major essential and improvement works (electrical, plumbing, heating, re-roofing, windows/doors, sound proofing) throughout. Only a major improvement scheme can make it usable for the future. The Council has rigorously and carefully considered two major projects to improve the Abbey Hall but regretfully both proved to be unaffordable for the Council tax payer, one costing c. £4 million and the other c. £3 million.

The Abbey Hall is in a key town centre location and the Town Council is in discussions with Oxfordshire County Council and the Vale of White Horse District Council regarding alternative community uses for the building. The Town Council hopes that the councils will be in a position to be able to announce details soon. Potential proposals are exciting and we may have a once in a lifetime opportunity to change the use of the building to enable a much wider community benefit.

The proposals would make much more efficient use of the building so that it could be used by many Abingdon residents not just a few. Many of the hirers who previously used the Abbey Hall will  be able to be accommodated in the newly improved Guildhall. The small number who cannot be accommodated in the Guildhall have other local options. Importantly, the utilisation of the Abbey Hall for other community use will help to secure the longer-term viability of the historic Guildhall for future generations.

In the meantime the Town Council is currently undertaking an investigation into the operational and financial feasibility bringing the Abbey Hall back in to use during the period when alternative community uses are being investigated.

We will keep you informed regularly via this page as and when further updates are available.

 

 

 

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