Tag Archives: ListedBuildingConsent

Bidston Observatory – buyers beware

Bidston Observatory – that iconic symbol of Liverpool’s scientific, industrial, and maritime heritage – should be celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Instead,  it is threatened yet again by unsympathetic, inappropriate development.

Bidston Observatory was built on the grounds of Bidston Lighthouse in 1866 by George Fosbery Lyster, Engineer-in-Chief to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board. The same man re-built the lighthouse a few years later, and renewed the perimeter wall enclosing the site. The site today looks much as Lyster planned it, wanting only a little loving care to remedy a few years of neglect. But there is a real and present danger.

Bidston Observatory is back on the market again, as the Wirral Globe, Liverpool Echo and the Media Penguin have noticed.

Now that the news has broken, it is time for us at Bidston Lighthouse to explain our position, and do what we can to disabuse potential developers of the notion that a residential development at Bidston Observatory would be welcome.

Our position

We are committed to preserving Bidston Lighthouse and Telegraph Station, and operating the Lighthouse tower as an educational resource and visitor attraction. We see ourselves as temporary custodians of the building, with a duty to preserve the possibility of a future reversion to public ownership or at least a use sympathetic to its heritage with a significant public-facing component. We still hope that a sympathetic owner with compatible intentions can be found for the Observatory.

A residential development on car park of Bidston Observatory could force us to abandon our ambitions for the world’s most inland lighthouse. It is hard to see how we could continue to open the Lighthouse to the public if that were to happen. We would, of course, oppose any proposal for such a development with all the resources at our disposal.

We will happily support proposals for future use of the Observatory that are sympathetic to its heritage, sustainable and allow some form of public access.

We would support a proposal to convert the Observatory into a dedicated museum and visitor centre. We just don’t think it likely in these uncertain times. We would not look kindly on any alterations or subdivisions (such as conversion to flats) that would permanently preclude such a possibility.

We are aware of one proposal from a potential buyer that meets all our criteria: to operate the Observatory as an artists’ retreat, incorporating a museum and exhibition space that will be accessible to the general public. We would be delighted to see the Observatory used in this way.

Not an exciting development opportunity

The advertisement on the auctioneer’s website describes the property as “an exciting development opportunity” with potential for eight new dwellings in the Observatory grounds. It is probable that such a proposal would also require listed buildings consent, as these dwellings are within the curtilage not only of the Grade-II listed Observatory, but also the Grade-II listed perimeter wall that encloses the site.

No such plans have actually been submitted to Wirral Borough Council. This is not suprising, for such a proposal would outrage the local community. Only a developer totally lacking in fear and social conscience would start that battle.

The same advertisement also mentions an “expired planning consent for 4 mansion apartments app ref APP/12/00536, likely to be granted again”. The advertisement does not mention that the change of use was linked to a Listed Buildings Consent (LBC/12/00537), which was granted subject to an extensive list of conditions. Neither the current owner nor the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) who obtained the consent made a meaningful start on the works within three years.  So the listed buildings consent lapsed three years later on 5 July 2015, and the permission to change the use to residential expired with it.

It is not at all clear that this application would be approved on re-submission. In 2012, the community consultation exercise resulted both in letters of objection and letters of support. We have reason to believe that those who expressed support in 2012 have since reversed their position, and would likely be opposed to a fresh application to convert the Observatory to residential apartments.

Caveat Emptor

Any developer who is still considering making a bid for Bidston Observatory should also be aware of the following.

The Observatory and the site of the former Braehead Cottage were sold to Bidston Observatory Developments Limited (company number 09109510) for the stated price of £270,000 on 15 April 2015 (the anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster and the sinking of the Titanic). The two titles were amalgamated into title number MS621814. At the time of the sale, the directors and shareholders of Bidston Observatory Developments Limited were Craig Malcolm William Blackwell and  Jason Woltman. Craig Blackwell was the company secretary. On 16 June, 2015, Blackwell and Woltman ceased being directors and shareholders of the company, and Antwon Bonnick became the sole director and shareholder. On 5 August 2015, Cheryl Bernadette Galvin became a director of and the majority shareholder in the company. Company accounts made up to 31 July 2015 were due on 1 April 2016. On 28 July 2016, they were still overdue.

The Observatory is currently occupied by “guardians” who pay rent to Camelot. According to an advertisement on the Camelot website (retrieved 24 Jun 2016), rooms are available from £60 per week, and the amenities include two shared kitchens. Nine guardians live in the building, a further two rooms being uninhabitable because of water damage, which is believed to have occurred after Bidston Observatory Developments Limited took possession of the Observatory.

It is rumoured that internal alterations have been made to the building that should have required Listed Buildings Consent, including the installation of a new kitchen and shower cubicle.

The entire building is rated as a single band B for council tax purposes. This is anomalously low for a building of such size, and reflects the internal condition of the building. It is also anomalous that a building whose last lawful use was as offices should be subject to council tax instead of business rates.

The Observatory is approached by Wilding Way, which although owned by Wirral Council, is not adopted. Wilding Way is only wide enough to take a single vehicle. It is regularly crossed by dog walkers, horse riders and wildlife. To widen the road would compromise the amenity of visitors to Bidston Hill Recreation Ground and the wildlife that inhabit it.

Bidston Observatory – Heritage for Sale

Bidston Observatory is up for sale, again. Here is the listing on RightMove: http://www.rightmove.co.uk/property-for-sale/property-28459380.html

Prospective buyers have only until 30th November to make their “best and final offer”. This seems a little rushed, given that the advert appeared in Wirral News only last week.

I hope the new owners appreciate what an important piece of Merseyside heritage they are taking on.

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

Bidston Observatory and Lighthouse, postmarked 1907

The Observatory was built in 1866, when the expansion of Waterloo Dock forced Liverpool Observatory to re-locate to Bidston Hill. It was built alongside Bidston Lighthouse and Signals Station, on land owned by the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.  John Hartnup, astronomer and Assistant Secretary to the Royal Astronomical Society, had been the Director of Liverpool Observatory since it was built in 1843. Amongst his achievements was the calculation of the longitude of Liverpool, which was important for navigation and the development of the port. He presided over the move to Bidston Hill, and continued as director of Bidston Observatory until his retirement in 1885, when he was succeeded by his son. The second director, John Hartnup Jr  died on 21 April 1892, when he fell from the roof of the Observatory while making meteorological observations.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

The Observatory, Lighthouse and Braehead Cottage from Boundary Road, postmarked 1909.

Over the years, the emphasis of the Observatory’s work shifted from astronomy to other things, but always in the tradition of Time and Tide, so important to the port of Liverpool.

Of Time. The progression from observations of the stars, to the determination of longitude, to the calibration of chronometers was a natural one. The Observatory’s two levels of cellars and other features made it especially suited for calibrating chronometers under controlled conditions of temperature and seismic vibrations. Marine chronometers from all over the empire were calibrated at Bidston. The One-O-Clock gun at Morpeth Dock was signalled from the Observatory by electric cable.

Of Tide. Ever since Liverpool’s harbour-master William Hutchinson (the same fellow who pioneered the use of parabolic reflectors in lighthouses on Bidston Hill) took the first extended series of tidal measurements over a period of nearly thirty years, Liverpool had led the world in tidal studies. This work became centred at Bidston Observatory when the Liverpool Tidal Institute was set up there under Joseph Proudman’s direction after World War I. Arthur Doodson’s work with mechanical computers for tide prediction happened here. One of his machines was used to predict the tides for the D-Day landings.

Observatory staff by the one-o-clock gun

Observatory staff by the original one-o-clock gun, after its removal to Bidston Hill from Morpeth Dock.

In 1969, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) took over responsibility for the Observatory. Oceanographic research continued to expand under their auspices. During the 1970’s, the Joseph Proudman Building was constructed in the former kitchen gardens of Bidston Lighthouse.

In 1989, the Observatory, Lighthouse and the perimeter wall enclosing them became Grade-II listed buildings.

In 2004, the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory moved from Bidston Hill to a new building at the University of Liverpool. Their oceanographic research is still continuing today, but now in the guise of the National Oceanography Centre. NERC’s plans to sell the site to a developer aroused opposition from local pressure groups, and the spectre of an eleven-story high-rise residential development was averted.

Bidston Observatory has featured on TV on several occasions, including episodes of Coast (Series 7, Episode 5: “The Riddle of the Tides”), Inside Out, and Where’s Fred. Joyce Scoffield, who used to work in the Observatory, has written a book about it: “Bidston Observatory: The Place and the People”, 2006 (available on Amazon). J. Eric Jones wrote “From Astrononomy to Oceanography – A brief history of Bidston Observatory”, which you can download from the NOC web site.

View from Observatory roof, March 2013

View from Observatory roof, March 2013.

Antarctica, Floods and Bidston Hill

Last week, BBC news reported on a new measurement of the volume of ice in Antarctica, from the Bedmap2 project. The potential sea level equivalent of the Antarctic ice volume is 58 metres. What does this mean? The BBC article explains: “if this ice was all converted to liquid water, it would be sufficient to raise the height of the world’s oceans by 58m”.

I did my own “back of the envelope” calculation using the Bedmap2 numbers (and a few guesses and approximations), and came up with a figure of about 60 metres, close enough to convince me that the BBC explanation of “potential sea level equivalent” is correct. I suspect the actual sea rise would be slightly less, because some of the water would inundate coastal regions, making the oceans larger, not just deeper. Still, 58 metres is a lot.

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Ordnance Survey cut benchmark on Bidston Lighthouse

Something about 58 metres rang a bell. Then I remembered the Ordnance Survey benchmark cut into the base of the Lighthouse, near the front door. (The first time I saw this, I mistook it for a mason’s mark. It was a surveyor who explained its significance to me.)

As I reported in an earlier post, the horizontal line at the top of the benchmark is 58.9727 metres (or thereabouts) above mean sea level at Newlyn, Cornwall. So if Antarctica melted, the sea would be lapping at the foot of the Lighthouse, and Bidston Hill would be an island.

We could buy a boat, and invest in a new dioptric lamp in case the Lighthouse is needed again. But surely it’s better to do our bit towards reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and invest instead in solar panels (assuming we can obtain planning permission and listed buildings consent).

There’s another connection between Antarctica and Bidston Hill. NERC, which used to own the Lighthouse and still owns the Observatory, is the research council that funds both the British Antarctic Survey and the National Oceanography Centre. It’s only a few months since the proposed merger of the British Antarctic Survey with the National Oceanography Centre was averted.




The case of the missing letterbox

Or  “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace”.

Our new cottage has no letterbox, and our mail is going astray.

One postman, trained by the previous occupant, delivers our letters to Mary, who lives in the cottage next door. He can do this because Mary’s front door is equipped with a functioning letterbox, fashioned from aluminium and faded, like Mary, from many seasons on the hill. This could be a satisfactory arrangement, were it not for Mary’s habit of filing her post, un-inspected, in a random drawer in whichever room she happens to be living in at the time.

Another postman, recently recruited and lacking the benefit of training from our predecessor, appears to have taken it upon himself to deliver our letters to the Observatory nearby. This is not a satisfactory arrangement, because we have no access to the Observatory, and no relationship to its denizens, nor they to each other.  There our letters will lie, on a table in the hallway, or the floor beneath the table, until such time as one denizen is taken by the urge to clear the common area, and our letters find their way to the re-cycling bin, the rubbish bin, or perhaps back to the Delivery Office marked “Not Known At This Address”.

On one occasion, an employee of Scottish Power hit upon the novel idea of sliding a we-came-to-read-the-meter-but-you-were-out card underneath our door. It is entirely possible that a future generation of postman might re-discover this ingenious solution.

We devised a cunning strategy to address the problem of missing mail. Let us call this Plan A. Plan A proceeds as follows:

  1. install a letterbox in the front door of the cottage
  2. lay in wait until a postman appears on his rounds
  3. greet the postman warmly, introduce him to the new letterbox, and instruct him in its operation
  4. repeat 2-3 until the estimated fraction of undelivered mail becomes acceptably small.

One technique for estimating the fraction of undelivered mail is to address a large number of letters to oneself, and to count those that arrive within say two weeks of despatch. Although the algorithm (2-4) is not guaranteed to converge monotonically or even in a finite number of iterations, it should be good enough for our purposes.

The real problem is step (1). You see, our cottage is a Grade II Listed Building.

It is a criminal offence to do works affecting the significance of a Listed Building without Listed Building Consent. Presumably, it is OK to do works on a Listed Building that don’t affect its significance. It is also legal to do works on a listed building and subsequently apply for Listed Building Consent. A PhD in Quantum Field Theory does not prepare the mind sufficiently to comprehend the implications of this convoluted logic. It seems to me that if you get the Consent everything’s fine and has been fine all along, but if you don’t, then not only have you committed a Criminal Act, you’ve also dobbed yourself in. Is this the legislative equivalent of quantum superposition?

Everything seems to turn on the interpretation of significance. The System is designed on the principle that the owner or developer of the listed building is not to be trusted. It vests the authority to determine the question of significance in public servants known as Local Planning Officers. These are busy people (our Borough has 1900 listed buildings managed by one Senior Conservation Officer and an assistant). Consequently the System places a heavy burden of preparing evidence on the owner or developer.

So, although our front door bears little resemblance to the original door, being clad in a metal (presumed steel) sheet, fitted recently and certainly some 100 years after the cottage was built, and although a front door to a Victorian cottage clearly deserves a letterbox, it is not for us to presume to install one without Listed Buildings Consent. Obtaining Listed Buildings Consent is not a trivial matter; the lengthy checklist involves a freshly-prepared Ordnance Survey Map of the site. a 1:200 scale plan of the building, 1:20 scale drawing(s) of the feature(s) affected, statements of impact and significance, and much more. At least it’s free, that is, if you don’t count the architect’s fees, map license fees, and your time. Once you’ve got your plans prepared, and your application lodged, you have only a minimum of 8 weeks to wait while the whole sad business is weighed and considered by the council, your neighbours, local pressure groups and the general public. You have to be on your best behaviour.

In the meantime, you still don’t have a letterbox, so any correspondence concerning the progress of the application is likely to go astray. But there’s a solution for this! You simply appoint an agent to act on your behalf, and all the correspondence goes to him or her.

But three months or more is a long time to be without mail. Perhaps that venerable institution Royal Mail can help? I decided to investigate.

It’s easy enough to find their web site – a level one wizard can do this. Level two skills are required to find descriptions of relevant services.

One could take a Post Office Box. These are not cheap, and there might be a waiting list, but the real problem is that you don’t have a letterbox, not that you don’t have an address. And sometimes a Post Office Box just won’t do.

What about mail redirection? As we won’t complete the move to the cottage until we sell our current house, we can consider redirecting mail from the new dwelling to the old one. Although the service is really designed to redirect mail from the old house to the new,  we might just be able to produce the documentation necessary to set it up. On the downside, the service is not free, and more importantly, the solution would only work until the old house is sold.

We could then redirect mail from the old house to the new, and let the mail circulate between the two addresses for a while. When the Listed Building Consent finally comes through, and the letterbox is installed, we simply cancel one of the redirections, and all our mail will suddenly appear at the cottage. Like that scene in Harry Potter.

Maybe Mail Redirection isn’t the perfect solution, after all.

What about Mail Collect (TM)? This service is has the virtue of being free. The idea is that your mail, instead of being delivered to your address, is held at the local Delivery Office, and you collect it from there at your leisure (but at least once a month). You need to be a Level 3 wizard to navigate the Royal Mail website to find the application form and guidance notes. But it can be done, with perseverance.

Level 4 expertise is required to locate your nearest delivery office. Here’s how I did it. Do not set out to locate the delivery office, Instead, prepare a list of completely different questions to which you want answers. This list should include:

  1. Does the Royal Mail have a recommended way of getting mail delivered when you don’t have a letter box?
  2. Does this work if you’re moving into the place instead of out of it?
  3. How should a person with two surnames, such as a married woman who gets mail addressed to both her married name and maiden name, complete the application form for Mail Collect (TM)?  Should she commit the minor fraud of submitting two applications as different people, each authorizing her alter ego to collect mail on her behalf?
  4. Why does an application for Mail Collect (TM) not require proof of residence at the address in question? Isn’t that opening a loophole for mail theft?
  5. Or is proof of identification really meant to include proof of residence at the address in question?
  6. If so, how should I obtain such proof? After all, my utilities bills are going astray, because I haven’t got a letter box…
  7. The guidance notes say that on receipt of my application, I should expect an acknowledgment, the return of the original documents evidencing my identification, and eventually a little white card that I should take with me when I go to collect my mail from my local Delivery Office. These items will be sent — you guessed it — by post to the address on the application. Yes, to the cottage with no letterbox. How is this supposed to work?

With these goals in mind, you set off on your quest. First you see a clue suggesting that there’s a way of contacting Royal Mail by email. Following this clue as far as it leads, you encounter a Sphinx who asks you a riddle about the nature of your question. It doesn’t matter how you reply, because all answers lead to the Labyrinth of Frequently Asked Questions, which you are required to search exhaustively. Only then will the angel Sarah, Your On-Line Digital Assistant, manifest herself to you. You may ask Sarah any question you like. Sarah will recognise any of the Frequently Asked Questions, and NO others.

At this point, you may like to add:

  • How do I ask a question that is not Frequently Asked?

to your list. Needless to say, this Question is not a Frequently Asked one.

Now it is necessary to re-trace your steps to the FAQ. This is not difficult, as all roads lead back there eventually. From here you can see a sign pointing towards Customer Service. Follow it. You should discover a Telephone Number beginning with the prefix 0845. Calls to 0845 numbers cost 10.22 New Pence per minute for Virgin customers. Dial this number. Again, you are challenged with a series of questions which you are expected to answer by typing numbers on the numeric keypad of your telephone. There are many possible sequences of questions and answers. If you chance upon a certain sequence, you will unlock a secret door which leads to the Find-Your-Local-Delivery-Office demon.

The demon FYLDO has the Power of Speech Recognition. She will ask you for your postcode, which you should recite aloud into the mouthpiece of your telephone. If you speak clearly, in a controlled accent, she may repeat it back to you correctly. This is good! You should say “Yes” when she asks you. I don’t know what happens if you can’t say “Yes” honestly. Perhaps she eats you.

Now, the demon asks “Road name”? My heart leaped into my mouth at this point, but your experience may be different to mine from here on.

You see, our cottage is on an un-named road. There is no road name in our address.

Trusting to a greater power, I replied, in a firm and steady voice. “None”, I said.

“I don’t understand that”, quoth the demon.

“None”, I replied, with false conviction.

The demon paused for a disconcertingly long time, then announced “You local Delivery Office is at …” ,  supplying address and opening hours.

Our next adventure will be to make a pilgrimage to our Local Delivery Office, in search of a Wise Man or Woman who can answer our questions.

I never did discover the mythical email address for Royal Mail.