OPINION: A new plan for Barnstaple's Oliver Buildings - Tim Jones

North Devon Gazette

Oliver Buildings – new renaissance.  A careful observer will have noted that there is now activity within this group of currently redundant buildings. In many senses, this is an historic moment.

It is the culmination of the redevelopment of the Anchorwood Bank site and will finally address the increasing frustration felt by many as to how long these buildings would remain in a derelict state.

There is a fascinating history here, which is worth recording. The Grade II listed Oliver Buildings occupy a prominent riverside site in Barnstaple.

William Clement Oliver designed the Shapland and Petter multi-coloured-brick factory, showroom and office complex in 1888.

Due to a disastrous fire, which destroyed the firm's previous works, the buildings used an innovative combination of fireproof and fire-retardant construction, compartmentalisation and a sprinkler system.

Shapland and Petter originally used advanced American machinery to produce high-quality, mass-produced Arts and Crafts furniture - Barnstaple's biggest employer for many years, the buildings closed in 2009.

Since then, the deterioration of the structure has been all too evident. The building has become the best hotel in Barnstaple for an increasing number of pigeons.

It is also interesting to recall that there was a far larger group of buildings of a similar design, many of these were demolished to make way for new manufacturing capabilities. Â There was also the need to accommodate both marine cargo vessels and a railway branch line which connected directly to the site.

Since production closed, there has been a long and complex debate regarding the building’s future.

Supported by the local conservation society and Historic England, the buildings were Listed, principally to reflect and preserve their industrial history. Demolition of this group was the alternative; however, all proposals of this type fell foul of the Listing order.

Concerns have been raised about the ongoing delays in progress. Behind the scenes, the developers, who are charged with bringing this site into active use, have been trying to balance the complexities of conversion with the huge pressures currently being experienced in the construction industry.

These include shortage of labour, shortage of materials, the advancing deterioration of the fabric and the ever-increasing costs associated with the latest building regulations, including the need for energy efficiency.

Acorn Group, who have been engaged in this process, have finally cracked these problems. There is a planning approval which allows the conversion of the building, principally into residential apartments but also with commercial uses on the ground floor.

The nature of building restoration at this scale is a highly sensitive operation and will take a substantial time to complete. Acorn are, however, now very confident that they can produce a successful scheme. They have also committed to using, where possible, local labour, local sub-contractors and local material sources.

It is to be celebrated that finally this eyesore can move forward and enhance the town centre of Barnstaple. It is perhaps worth celebrating this moment as part of the general resurgence of the Barnstaple economy.

Other ‘eyesore’ buildings, such as, the Royal Clarence in Exeter and the vacant Civic Centre in Barnstaple have a less certain future. It is hoped that all will watch this project emerging with both interest and support.