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Council seeks new start for Hodder’s ransacked National Wildflower Centre

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Stephen Hodder has welcomed proposals to find a new use for the closed and run-down National Wildflower Centre, which was vandalised last weekend

Knowsley Council is inviting expressions of interest for the site at Court Hey Park near Huyton, Merseyside, following the closure of the National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley earlier this year. In January, Landlife, the charity which founded the Millennium Project centre, went into liquidation (see AJ 22.02.17).

The council suggests the site could be used as a care and health initiative, a community hub, a base for environmental organisations, a hub for business start-ups, an events centre, care home provision or as a retail or food outlet.

However its plans received a serious setback at the weekend when the complex – including Hodder+Partners’ 160m-long centrepeice visitors’ centre – was the target of vandalism and arson.

Hodder said the attack was ‘tragic’ but welcomed the council’s move to reuse the site. ‘It sounds as if the local authority has been listening to the community,’ he said. ‘It’s very encouraging. The building had become quite a focal point for people who use the park.

‘That whole complex, when it was completed all those years ago, did seem to form the catalyst of the regeneration of the park.’

The council, which owns the freehold for the park and its buildings, says the annual £1.3 million cost to maintain all its parks is unsustainable, primarily due to central government cuts to funding for public services. Knowsley has lost £86 million in budget cuts since 2010 and has to find another £14.8 million of savings over the next three years.

As a result, it has set up an independent review board to look at alternative funding and management models that could be applied to its parks and green spaces from April 2019.

A council prospectus, A New Way Forward for Court Hey Park, says parties interested in the former National Wildflower Centre should either be willing to rent space on the site until April 2019 or have a proposal that fits with the council’s wider plans for future park funding and be able to make a success of a project in the longer term.

The site covered by the expression of interest comprises: Hodder+Partners’ visitors’ centre, which was completed in 2000 and made the mid-list for the Stirling Prize in 2001; the walled garden; offices and rooms within the converted stable block and courtyard; garages; parkland ares; a barn and car park areas.

The council report notes that a detailed structural and condition survey carried out on the courtyard, garages and Millennium building found that maintenance costs would total an estimated £613,605 over the next 10 years. However the survey was carried out before the recent vandalism.

Hodder said the complex had been ‘asset stripped’ so organisations would also need to factor in the cost of items such as catering equipment for the café. He will contact the council to offer help, by making Hodder+Partners’ drawings for the site available to any groups interested in using the complex.

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Hodder and Partners’ abandoned National Wildflower Centre which was vandalised early June 2017

Hodder and Partners’ abandoned National Wildflower Centre which was vandalised early June 2017

Architect Maurice Shapero, who led the project at Hodder+Partners, said the café in the visitors’ centre was ‘always full of local people’. He said the building would make a ‘great office’ for architects but admitted its long and thin design ‘does restrict a lot of functions’.

He commented: ‘It was such a specifically designed thing it’s difficult to imagine what you could fit in there.’

Interested parties have until 26 June to put forward a proposal to the council. A spokesperson said the authority had been ‘very encouraged’ by the level of interest so far.

The council plans to undertake the commissioning process between September and December, with short-term occupation of the buildings or land earmarked for the 15-month period between January 2018 and March 2019. Longer-term occupation would start from April 2019.

The council spokesperson said the authority was ‘desperately disappointed at the wanton vandalism and arson attack’ at the centre. ‘Our priority is to make the site safe and secure and assess the level of damage to the buildings,’ she said.

‘Despite this setback we are optimistic about the future of the site and are currently inviting “expressions of interest” from organisations, businesses and community groups who may be interested in setting up new ventures in Court Hey Park.’

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