THE Winter Gardens still ‘at risk’? Who are English Heritage kidding? That was the initial reaction of many to the historic centre’s inclusion on the latest Industrial Heritage Sites At Risk Register – after £1.25m had been invested in public areas of the complex this year by relatively new owners Blackpool Council.
But it pays to study the small print closely. English Heritage has notched the Winter Gardens up a grade from “slow decay” (last year) to “under repair” this year. It still rates the overall condition as “poor”, but the devil’s in the detail.
As with most makeovers, the emphasis has been on improving public areas in the hope of helping the place pay for itself.
The big challenge is to underpin what English Heritage describe as “significant structural problems” arising from water penetration of the steel frame within the brick work.
And that’s why it actually pays to be classified as at risk because this is a potential money pit – or would have been – had the Grade II listed property passed back to council hands in a worse state.
That was the gamble Blackpool Council took in purchasing the property, and it’s paying off in unlocking public funding. It would be far harder for a private landlord milking profits without maintaining property to make a case for cash from publicly-funded sources.
The big daddy of them all is English Heritage, which has also listed the Winter Gardens as one of its top 10 priorities in the region for further focus for support.
And that could mean more than £1m in grants says English Heritage’s regional planning director Henry Owen-Jones. “We’re in negotiations now,” he confirms.
“It’s fantastic news,” says Elaine Smith, chairman of Blackpool Civic Trust. “At first you think why are they doing this? Then the penny drops that it’s actually good news as it means more money.”
Henry says Blackpool is one of the most enterprising towns he has ever dealt with.
“It’s got a great spirit,” he admits. “It has some of the best champions in Britain helping to fight its corner.”
He alludes to Professor Vanessa Toulmin, the Sheffield University academic who helped galvanise the Winter Garden’s regeneration after her first visit.
“Vanessa is a force of nature and you couldn’t buy the kind of exposure and expertise she has brought to the resort.”
He also pays tribute to the resident heritage and cultural services team, and says it is crucial to the economy of a town, where success was built on Victorian excess. “If you lose knowledge and expertise in that area, the whole area of economic development is at risk. It’s not a statutory service, but vital.”
The Winter Gardens along with Blackpool Tower, has become the touchstone to heritage renaissance in the resort. Currently local heritage officers are considering redrawing conservation areas in and around the town.
Carl Carrington, built heritage manager for the council, says it will iron out anomalies such as the omission of the Grand Theatre from the conservation area.
He is also exploring, with English Heritage support, a system of local listings to safeguard buildings of merit which may not have what it takes to make the national Grade I or II listed status. Roberts Oyster Bar is one such example.
The local authority also slapped a building preservation order on a garage which dated back to 1915. And Mr Carrington is already looking into two places of worship, both listed, on the at risk register: Our Lady of Lourdes Shrine at Whinney Heys Road, and Blackpool Orthodox Synagogue on Leamington Road. Carl adds: “The shrine is in good hands, the Historic Chapels trust, but the synagogue has closed, the congregation having moved to St Annes. We understand why it has happened, but would appreciate a wider discussion. It’s of immense concern to us.”
Lytham Hall is also deemed at risk in South Fylde.
Mr Owen-Jones says it’s vital locals breathe new life into tired old buildings.
“Blackpool is one of those places where a lot is going on. This is how Blackpool has always survived, by adapting to circumstances. What’s happening now is very positive. But people need to use it.”
Word is out at the Winter Gardens. The cafe (what used to be the amusement arcade) is busy, and around 100 visitors are listening to a daytime cabaret in a neighbouring lounge. And Claremont Park Community Group is working on an art project, a theatrical screen known as a myriorama, with the helping of artist Garth Gratrix and local historians Ted and Ann Lightbown.
Garth adds: “People are passionate about the Winter Gardens and Blackpool.”
The last word goes to Professor Vanessa who’s just finished her third book in her Blackpool series, and is about to commence the fourth. “Blackpool is magic. It holds surprises. The Winter Gardens holds many more. Take it from me, the best is yet to come.”