Signs of fresh flaking [the yellow area] on the stonework of the Northampton Eleanor Cross pictured on 8 August 2018.
[Copyright: Mike Ingram]
Even as the Leader of Northampton Council, Councillor Jonathan Nunn told the BBC on Sunday [12 August 2018] that the East Midlands town needed to pivot its offer to visitors from retail to heritage and culture, photographs were emerging of what appears to be fresh damage to Northampton’s nationally important medieval Eleanor Cross. The photographs appeared just as fears are growing among campaigners in Northampton that the long delayed repairs to the Cross, which Northampton Borough Council’s cabinet member for regeneration, Cllr Tim Hadland, had appeared to promise would be completed this Summer, have been postponed once again by the cash strapped council. Meanwhile heritage regulator Historic England, which had promised to fast track substantial grant aid to the East Midlands council, appeared to pass responsibility for the delay by referring all inquiries regarding the repairs to the council’s press office.
As reported previously in thePipeLine, a series of e-mails and reports from two independent experts in the conservation of stone buildings, Stress UK and Cliveden Conservation, delivered in the late Autumn and early Winter of 2017, recommended urgent remedial work to strap the cross and prevent the fabric deteriorating over the Winter as part of a wider programme of restoration.
On 9 November 2017 Councillor Hadland himself was sent an e-mail under the subject line “Eleanor Cross urgent repairs”, in which he was told by his lead officer Paul Walker,
“As you can see the structure has a crack in it and potentially presents a possible danger to the public hence the request for fencing and signage.
Cliveden Conservation, whom we have requested more information from, suggest we should strap the upper structure as a temporary measure, pending the design of a permanent repair.”
An excerpt from the report by Stress UK sent to Northampton Borough Council and released under the Freedom of Information Act. The damage reported here has not yet been addressed by the owner of the Cross, Northampton Borough Council.
[Copyright: Stress UK, published in the public interest for the reporting of news]
However, in spite of the cross being listed on the borough’s asset register, through the Winter of 2017/2018 the borough council was still arguing with Northampton County Council, disputing who actually owned the Grade 1 listed monument and was thus legally responsible for paying for the repairs.
In November 2017, in a move which critics took as a further attempt to postpone having to commit cash for the repairs, the council chose to go with the recommendations of one of its own staff, Building Control Officer Lee Hunter, who suggested that the works could be postponed safely, rather than with the conclusions of the independent experts. As a result, while Mr Hunter’s alternative view was perfectly proper and while the Cross was indeed fenced off to protect the public from the risk of falling stonework, none of the additional work, including the urgent remedial measures suggested by Stress UK and Cliveden Conservation, was undertaken.
In the early Spring of 2018, with further visible deterioration having taken place over the Winter, and with flakes of stone which had fallen from the Cross visible on the steps leading up to the base of the cross, the council came under renewed pressure to take action.
By now the council had received confirmation from its lawyers that it did indeed own the Cross and, by implication, it could no longer escape responsibility for the upkeep of the Cross, including the cost of repairs.
Meanwhile, in what appears to have been an attempt to jump start the repair process the regional team covering the East Midlands at Historic England, agreed to place the Eleanor Cross on the “Buildings at Risk” register. This move enabled Historic England to fast track grant aid which would become available as a consequence of the new classification.
However, in spite of Historic England’s efforts to oil the wheels and although it had received confirmation of its ownership of the cross almost two months earlier on 5 March, Northampton Borough Council only submitted an application for a grant to Historic England on 24 April .
As the application was being submitted Ben Robinson of Historic England emphasised the urgency which had prompted Historic England to act, telling the BBC in early May,
“We need to act and we need to act as soon as possible.”
At this time Councillor Hadland, seemed to be on the same page of the public relations play book calling the decision “really good news” and adding
“The aim all along has been to get these repairs done in the summer before another winter.”
Already severely impacted by age, weather and pollution, the Northampton Eleanor Cross has visibly deteriorated since the Autumn of 2017.
[Copyright: Mike Ingram]
Of course this ignored the fact that the expert reports, seen by senior officers at NBC and by Councillor Hadland himself, had said urgent work needed to be carried out the previous Autumn. Even so hopes were high among campaigners that work would begin at at last to at least stabilise the cross and prevent further deterioration.
However, since the first week in May nothing further appears to have happened, while the cross appears to have suffered the further damage shown in photographs published this week on Social Media, including on the Save Our Eleanor Cross Facebook group and now here in thePipeLine.
In an attempt to clarify the current situation thePipeLine asked Historic England a series of questions, including whether the grant promised by Mr Robinson in May had been paid and whether the heritage regulator had any powers it could use to force Northampton Borough Council to act to repair the Cross.
A spokesperson for Historic England told us,
“I have spoken to our regional team and they have confirmed that Historic England will be grant-aiding repairs and giving specialist advice. However, Northampton Borough Council is leading on the repair project for Eleanor Cross so please contact Craig Forsyth at the council’s press office as he can update you on where the repair project is at.”
In the light of the response from Historic England, which appeared to place the entire responsibility for the project at the feet of Councillor Hadland and his colleagues, and noting the concerns expressed by the Eleanor Cross campaigners, thePipeLine asked Mr Forsyth and Councillor Hadland the following questions on 8 August ,
1. Has Northampton Borough Council already received any or all of the grant money allocated by Historic England? If the grant has been received how much of the grant has been received?
2. Has NBC allocated funds for its share of the cost of repairs to the Eleanor Cross?
3. Campaigners and the BBC have pointed out that Councillor Hadland went on the record in May [three months ago] telling the BBC that work on the Cross would begin within weeks, not months. However, no work has been undertaken. Either the work has been delayed, in which case what caused the delay, or Cllr Hadland did not tell the truth? Which was it?
4. A scheme of repairs was agreed with Historic England and NBC was in receipt of a series of expert reports, including one on the urgent remedial strapping of the cross. However, NBC’s comment to the BBC Radio Northampton Breakfast Show on August  referred to the appointment of a lead professional and the commissioning of yet more reports. Please explain why should this be seen as anything other than an attempt to further delay the commissioning of the full programme of repairs?
Up to the time of publication neither Mr Forsyth nor Councillor Hadland has chosen to reply.
However, Northampton Borough Council did tell representatives of the Save Our Queen Eleanor Cross Facebook group, on Facebook, that,
“A lead professional adviser has been commissioned and they are currently assessing what work is appropriate.”
The Council added,
“we’ll be offering updates as soon as we can.”
In other words, as things stand at the time of publication, apart from the appointment of an, un-named, lead adviser, to add to the extensive advice NBC has already had from Cliveden Conservation, Stress UK, and Historic England, the Northampton Eleanor Cross is effectively no closer to repair work actually commencing than it was almost a year ago in October 2017.
However, suspicion is rife among campaigners that the council is seeking once again to kick the expensive can requiring them to actually undertake the repair work further down the A508 London Road.
The suspicion is reinforced by a comment made in an NBC press release dated 3 May 2018, which quoted Councillor Hadland as saying [our italics],
“The hope is to carry out the work during the summer and autumn this year, but if this is not possible remedial measures will be taken to protect the structure throughout the winter months.”
Neither NBC nor the responsible elected council member, Councillor Hadland have explained in public why the work “might not be possible” this Summer when,
- the need for “urgent” repairs was confirmed independently by two specialist companies in October and November 2017;
- when a “final condition report” was received on 2 February 2018,
- when the council’s ownership of the cross was confirmed on 5 March 2018 and
- when a grant to cover half the cost of full repairs was announced by Historic England in late April 2018 on the basis of extensive discussions with NBC about the implications of the final condition report and its implications.
More fundamentally, the campaigners are concerned that the case of the Northampton Eleanor Cross has highlighted a major flaw in the mechanisms available to protect and conserve the nation’s most important historic buildings. That is that while Historic England can help behind the scenes., can supply technical advice and can even use funding mechanisms to fast track assistance and provide money to support repairs, the nation’s heritage regulator has no real powers to intervene and force a property owner to take action.
Critics of the current system point out that, while a teenage vandal damaging a scheduled monument can find themselves in front of a court with a judge who is able to take damage to the national heritage into account as an aggravating factor in sentencing, a council deliberately delaying urgent repairs leading to damage to a similar monument faces no such sanction.
For now, the campaigners say that the only weapon available is to keep the issue in the public consciousness and to try to shame the council into taking action at last.
However, they also fear that with the record of delay and inaction over the Eleanor Cross taking place against a background of Northampton Borough Council’s attempts to facilitate building football pitches on the Registered Battlefield of Northampton and the international scandal of the sale of the statue of Sekhemka from Northampton Museum into private hands, when it comes to heritage matters, the ruling group on Northampton Borough Council has no shame.
Fenced off for safety reasons, and festooned with weeds and fragments of stone falling from above, the Northampton Eleanor Cross awaits Northampton Borough Council’s decision to start repairs and restoration.
[Copyright: Mike Ingram]
As befits modern politics there is of course a conspiracy theory surrounding Councillor Hadland and NBC’s failure to take action to repair the Eleanor Cross.
It is nothing to do with the council allegedly wanting to save money at all costs and neither is it a suggested ideological objection to the Council Tax payers of Northampton being forced to foot any of the bill for repairs to what listed status shows is a national monument. Instead, the theory runs, it is all down to wanting to create a political legacy.
Previous Council Leader [and short lived MP for Northampton South] David Mackintosh won the [less than] coveted title of Philistine of the Year in Private Eye magazine’s “Rotten Borough’s” awards, and theory runs that, with little else to mark their time warming seats on the council, Councillor Hadland and his colleagues in the current ruling group want to make it a double.
In fact, perhaps the council hopes that, like the original Jules Rimet World Cup, if they win the Philistine of the Year award three times they get to keep it.
Then, the conspiracy theorists say, they would at least have something to put in their planned new museum to replace Sekhemka.