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With plans to build a new bus station in Northampton expected to be approved within months and the demolition of Greyfriars to follow close behind, The Chron explores the history of the notorious bus station . . .

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  • by Wayne Bontoft
 

IT MAY have undergone a resurgence in public appreciation in the past couple of years, but the Greyfriars Bus Station has been at the heart of controversy ever since plans for the building were first published.

The first mention of a new bus station being built to replace the old facility in Derngate appeared in the Chronicle & Echo in 1972.

Even though plans for what would become Greyfriars had not been revealed at the time, there were already rumblings of discontent about how successful the project would be.

In a March 1972 article, then councillor, Eric Billson, expressed fears the new station would not be big enough to cope with the number of people wanting to catch buses and could become a folly in less than 20 years. He said: “I am convinced that the bus station as proposed will be inadequate in its capacity in 1974 and by 1991 will be a monument to a lack of planning and foresight.”

At the time, the bus station was planned to open by October 1, 1974 with a predicted construction cost of £2.5 million, the modern equivalent of £25.7 million.

Work started on the station in August 1973, but as with many large-scale construction projects, the first deadline for the building to open passed, followed by another in 1975 and another in February 1976.

While the offices above the station were not completed, the bus station opened on April 25, 1976, almost two years later than expected and at a final cost of £7.25 million, the modern equivalent of £74.5 million.

During the station’s first week of operation, its success was closely monitored by the Chron and views among passengers were mixed.

While some welcomed the ability to catch buses under cover, others said they did not like having to use escalators and lifts to get around the building.

Interviewed during the station’s first weekend, pensioner Vera Botterill said: “It’s horrible, but we shall have to get used to it.”

The first few days and months of the bus station’s life also saw it hit by a number of problems which would recur over the coming decades.

On the first weekend of the station’s operation, one of the lifts had already broken down and by September 1977, “mineral stalactites” which users of the bus station would recognise today, had started forming on the ceilings of some of the building’s underpasses.

Such problems led to the station facing a barrage of early criticism.

In May 1976, the station was labelled “useless” by disabled bus users and by August, when the building had been open just four months, the Chron reported that Greyfriars had been labelled both “an architectural folly” and “the biggest mistake in Northampton’s history” by residents.

But one of the biggest concerns about the Greyfriars building throughout its 36-year history has been the use of the three-storey office block above the bus station.

The offices stand empty today as they have for 21 years of the building’s history. But when they were originally built, it was hoped the rent the council would receive from the offices would pay-off the massive construction cost of the building.

That hope was clearly fading by 1981, when, despite being completed at the end of 1976, the offices were still standing empty.

To solve that problem, council officials were despatched to Holland to woo engineering firm Lummus to Northampton.

The global firm, which made equipment for North Sea oil wells, finally agreed to move into Greyfriars and spend £1.5 million altering the office complex on the understanding they would not have to pay rent for the first five years of their occupancy.

Unfortunately, five years after moving into Greyfriars, Lummus announced plans to pull out of the UK, leaving Greyfriars’ offices empty again.

That situation was resolved when Barclaycard agreed to take over the office space the same year. But they moved out in 1997, leaving the building empty ever since and the borough council losing rental income which was estimated at £1.8 million-a-year back in 1998.

But even during the years when the offices above the bus station were used, Greyfriars still came under constant criticism. In 1988, the Chron reported that it had been compared to a “red brick Fuhrer bunker” and in 1990, the station was labelled a “hostile and dangerous place” by councillors following an increase in attacks on bus drivers and reports that sections of the station were being used by drug users.

Further criticism continued after the Millennium, with George Ferguson, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects described it as “truly one of the worst bits of architecture in the country” and television presenter Kevin McCloud famously labelling the station “the mouth of hell”.

Serious concerns about the safety of the building were also raised following the deaths of a 21-year-old man who was hit by a bus inside the station in 2004 and of a 74-year-old woman in 2009 after she was also hit by a bus.

The borough council spent £50,000 on safety measures to protect people inside the building, but other problems still reared their head.

In 2007, the 300-space car park above the bus station had to be closed after minerals like those first seen 30 years earlier were found to be leaking through the building’s structure onto cars parked below, causing serious damage.

In December 2007 and January the following year sections of the station also had to be temporarily closed because sewage was found to be leaking through the ceiling. That problem was solved by closing off some of the bus drivers’ toilets which had a history of overflowing, but it just added to the criticism being heaped on the building.

In 2008, a firm of professional cleaners which was brought in to give the station a “deep-clean”, described it as the filthiest building they had ever seen and in 2009, the influential Lonely Planet guidebook described the bus station as “infamously ugly”.

As the troubled building now appears to be reaching the end of its days, plans have been published to begin its demolition by the end of 2013.

It will be replaced by a smaller bus station on the current Fishmarket site, where construction work is expected to begin in September this year.

Plans for the £6.5 million new station have been massively unpopular with many bus users, but looking back, in many ways that echoes the situation in 1976, when many mourned the closure of the Derngate bus station and predicted the new bus station would be a step backwards for the town.

1972 The estimated cost of the building is £2,578,000. It is due to be completed by October 1, 1974.

1972 Expected cost of station increased to £3,308,000.

1973 August: work starts on the bus station

1976 The £7,250,000 million bus station opened on April 25. The offices above were not completed until the end of the year.

1976 May 4: Claims bus station will be a “white elephant and a luxury the town cannot afford”.

1976 August: Bus station described as “an architectural folly” and “the biggest mistake in Northampton’s history”.

1977 September: The station is described as “one of the most offensive spots in town” for litter and graffiti. Water is also seeping through the roof of one of the underpasses creating “mineral stalactites”.

1980 Bus passengers call for Greyfriars to remain closed after it is shut for the day because of a strike.

1981 Offices above Greyfriars are still empty.

1982 January: Engineering firm Lummus moves from London into the Greyfriars offices.

1986 Lummus announces it is moving out of the UK. The top floor of Greyfriars is taken over by Barclaycard.

1987 Barclaycard agreed to take over all the office space, bringing 300 jobs to the town centre.

1990 Station labelled “a hostile and dangerous place” by councillors following attacks on staff and rise in drug users using the building.

1997 Barclaycard moves out of the offices above the bus station.

2003 Councillors describe the building as “a dangerous and ugly scar on the town” and call for it to be closed in 2004.

2004 A 21-year-old man died after being hit by a bus in the station.

2005 Stagecoach say the problem of homeless people sleeping on buses will only be overcome once Greyfriars is closed. First buses label Greyfriars “Frankly disgraceful”.

2005 The council pledges to demolish the bus station by 2010 on Channel 4’s Demolition programme. Presenter Kevin McCloud described it as: “A great big mouth of hell.”

2007 The 300 space car park above the bus station is closed.

2007 The bus station is closed for one day in December and one the following month after raw sewage leaked through the ceiling.

2009 A 74-year-old woman died after being hit by a bus inside the station. The borough council spends £50,000 on safety improvements.

2011 It is announced that work to build new bus station could start in September 2012 and be finished by August 2013.

2011 The WNDC approved £8 million funding for the project. Northampton Borough Council approved a further £3 million.

2012 January: Plans for new bus station go on show. It will cost £6.5 million. It will contain 12 bus bays with seven more in the Drapery. The demolition of Greyfriars could start at the end of 2013. Council claims restoring Greyfriars would cost £30 million.

 

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