Ipswich: Fresh hope for crumbling County Hall as ‘for sale’ signs go up
PUBLISHED: 14:39 21 June 2013 | UPDATED: 14:39 21 June 2013
The owner of County Hall in Ipswich has started a new campaign to try to sell it and find a new use for the iconic town centre building.
County Hall’s long history
The County Hall building on St Helen’s Street was originally opened in 1837 – the year Queen Victoria came to the throne – as the main offices and courtrooms for Ipswich Jail.
The council chamber at the junction with Bond Street was added in 1906 by which time the offices were more heavily used by East Suffolk County Council, whose influence on life in the county was increasing.
Courts and the prison were part of the county council structure – and courts continued to use the building after the prison itself closed in 1930.
Ipswich Jail was demolished in 1931 and its site was redeveloped as Shaftsbury Square.
The court was best-known as the place where Wallis Simpson was granted a divorce in 1936 – paving the way for the Abdication Crisis and her marriage to the Duke of Windsor.
The courts finally moved out of the building in the late 1960s when the new Crown and Magistrates Court buildings were opened in Civic Drive and Elm Street.
County Hall – or at least the St Helen Court element of it – was modernised in the 1980s before the county moved out to its Endeavour House headquarters in 2004.
County Hall is Grade Two listed, which means that any redevelopment must retain its original features – especially the council chamber and the former courtroom which was used as the main committee room in later years.
The state of the Victorian landmark has caused concern for years – it is on the borough council’s list of buildings at risk.
And concern increased last year after we were sent internal pictures showing how the building had been damaged by rough sleepers and drug users.
Now owner David Harris has broken his silence to tell how he wants to see the building brought back to life – and regain its place at the heart of the town’s life.
However he has warned that the economic conditions remain tough.
His company, M&D Developments, bought County Hall after the council moved to Endeavour House in 2004.
Much of the estate – comprising unattractive offices built in the 1950s – has been redeveloped, but the headquarters in St Helen Court is Victorian and its listing prevented major changes.
Mr Harris said: “We have acheived a great deal there, we have provided a significant number of homes at reasonable cost and restored several shops which has given a boost to the area.
“But when the crash came it was impossible to find anyone who wanted to do anything with that building.
“When we bought this Ipswich was a boom town – now it is a place that is struggling.”
Mr Harris said Ipswich remained a town that banks remained reluctant to lend to – it was not just a problem for his company, problems in the shopping centre and at the Waterfront told the same story.
But he hoped that by marketting County Hall, someone might come up with a new use for it.
He said: “We are looking at either selling the building or entering into a joint venture. I don’t know what its new use might be, that is open to negotiation but we are very keen to see it come back into use.
“We know how important it is to Ipswich and how much people care about it.”
He had been irritated by the coverage of the vandalism problems last year, but had taken the decision not to comment because he was working with the borough council and the police to try to sort out the problem.
Since then security had been improved, and this week “For Sale” signs have gone up.
Mr Harris said he had been frustrated about the treatment of some of those responsible for damage – one person had been taken to court after several thousands of pounds of damage was caused, but was only fined £100.
But he hopes that with the site secure, and more active marketting going on, something could finally happen at County Hall.