Article published: Wednesday, October 17th 2012
A town hall scrutiny committee has approved proposals to gate off Library Walk, despite dissent from local councillors and a spirited defence by supporters. A final decision on the “cherished” curved passageway’s future will be decided at a crunch planning meeting next week.
Plans to redesign St Peter’s Square as a centrepiece of the city’s new “civic quarter” were called in for scrutiny before Manchester City Council’s Neighbourhoods Committee by opposition Lib Dem councillors following controversy over Library Walk and the relocation of the cenotaph.
Over 1,300 people have signed a petition against proposals to insert a £3.5 million glass pod at one entrance to Library Walk and erect gates locked between 10pm and 6am across the other.
Critics accuse the plans of spoiling a unique and valued piece of Manchester’s cityscape. The council claims the changes are needed to reduce “anti-social behaviour” and provide easy access between the Library and Town Hall, set to share services as part of a multi-million pound prestige revamp.
Addressing the committee, Morag Rose of the Friends of Library Walk campaign praised Library Walk as “a place of respite in the city”, warning councillors that to “disregard it rather than cherish it would be an act of cultural vandalism”.
Rose resisted claims by senior council figures that gating Library Walk at night was necessary to prevent annoyances such as street urination and crimes such as the rape of one woman in 2010. Locking down areas in response would set a “terrifying precedent” she said, pointing to statements by experts such as Dr Victoria Henshaw of the Manchester Architecture Research Centre.
“What makes the streets safe are busy, well lit and used areas”, argued Rose, “not closed off cul-de-sacs” or “no-go zones”. She further criticised the “lack of robust consultation”, with the controversial plans only announced at the last minute, and claimed that the space “has extraordinary resonance to a lot of people”.
Leader of the council Sir Richard Leese was unsympathetic, describing Library Walk as “not a pleasant space”. Leese claimed that closing the walkway at night was “no different” to the council’s residential alleygate schemes, and said keeping it open during the day was “not unreasonable” on the council’s part. “I’m not sure why people would want to be there at 3am”, he said.
Leese claimed a glazed link was necessary to make access between the Library and the Town Hall easier for visitors using their services, potentially shaving off 100m of travel between the two. An obvious entrance was also badly needed he said, recounting how in past years council workers “would spend a lot of time redirecting lost people around the Town Hall”.
Architect Ian Simpson, the man responsible for the redesign along with much of Manchester’s regeneration since the IRA bomb, struck a less disparaging note. “I love Library Walk, it’s one of my favourite spaces”, he claimed. But there was no alternative to the “discreet, simple link” if the Town Hall development was to leave behind “buildings fit for the 21st Century”.
Committee member and city centre Labour councillor Kevin Peel opposed the plans, saying the council should be listening to the “many, many residents” who feared for the “beautiful” space. “I haven’t spoken to a single person who supports it”, he added. Lib Dem councillor James Hennigan agreed. “Alternatives need to be listened to”, he said.
The majority on the committee backed the council leadership however, with former culture executive Mike Amesbury castigating Library Walk as “nothing but, particularly at the weekend, a urinal”.
The proposals will now go before the city’s Planning and Highways Committee for a decision on the fate of Library Walk next Thursday 25 October.