As Bingley finally frees itself, both literally and figuratively, from the shadow cast by the old Bradford and Bingley building, Lisa Firth reflects on the site’s past – and its future.
Love it or hate it, the concrete monster that until recently loomed over Bingley is enmeshed with the town’s history and identity. Dominating the skyline for miles around, when first opened in 1975 it was Bingley’s all-too-visible stake in the pulsing world of modern banking, sheltering countless employees of the now defunct Bradford and Bingley Building Society.
After the drawn-out saga of the building’s demolition – delayed once due to concerns about asbestos and again after hibernating bats were found inside – it’s with mixed feelings that townsfolk have finally witnessed its demise. A friend told me he had seen a number of older people – former employees perhaps – gathering morosely one afternoon to watch it fall. “In bowler hats?” I joked, referencing the classic TV ads of the 1970s onwards – their characters, City gents Mr Bradford and Mr Bingley, as enduringly memorable to people of a certain age as mash potato-eating robots, Accrington Stanley Football Club or the glitzy ambassador’s reception.
And therein lies the root of the ambivalence many of us now feel at seeing the mounds of rubble, the former offices wall-less and exposed, or a wrecking machine clawing through the building’s ugly yet iconic plastic clocks. The fact is that everyone does remember those adverts. As the headquarters of one of the largest financial organisations in the country, the Bradford and Bingley put our town on the map. “Oh, like the building society?” was the first thing strangers would say when I told them where I was from.
Local resident Kath Gabbitas agrees. “I’m really sorry to see the old building being demolished,” she tells me. “Yes, it’s an ugly building but very much part of Bingley’s history. When I was at Harrogate College of Art in 1982, I had an assignment on architecture and this was one of the buildings I really enjoyed photographing: the shape, the lines and the patterns. It’s a sad day when it disappears completely.” The five-storey building’s unusual tiered design was apparently meant to reflect the structure of local landmark Five Rise Locks.
Sarah Whistlecraft, who grew up in Harden, also has mixed feelings as the building comes down. “I’ve been watching it every week; my children have been drawing pictures of the big cranes,” she says. “It was an ugly building but it will leave a gap in the skyline that I’ve grown up with.” However, ultimately she feels that the demolition is a positive move for the town: “Bingley is evolving so much, I think it’s a good thing.”
Not everyone shares the ambivalence, though. Barry Traish of Saltaire will be delighted to see the back of Bingley’s “monstrous carbuncle”. “I really hope that the planners insist on something beautiful being built there instead – a bit of elan to put Bingley on the map,” he says. And Shipley constituency MP Philip Davies, the man who made it his mission to push for the site’s redevelopment, describes the demolition as “wonderful”. “It is such an important site in the town centre which needs to be brought into use to benefit the other shops in Bingley,” he tells me. “It was a horrendously ugly building and I spent an awful lot of time pressing Sainsbury’s to demolish it and sell it on ASAP!”
“However, it is tinged with sadness as it is a stark reminder of the demise of Bradford and Bingley, a business which commanded much local pride for 150 years,” he adds. “I just hope that the site is sold off quickly – and it brings much-needed footfall into the town.”
While the building is undeniably a part of Bingley’s history, its construction cost the town some of its history too. A lost pub, the Old King’s Head, once stood on the site of the Bradford and Bingley. In the 19th century this old coaching inn was the venue for some sensational inquests and magistrates’ hearings, and in later years was known for its successful jazz nights. The town’s historic courthouse was also among the buildings on Myrtle Place sacrificed to make way for the building society headquarters, while the entrance to Myrtle Park and the 20s-era Princess Hall dance hall and baths (now Bingley Leisure Centre) have been almost entirely eclipsed by the newer structure.
The Bradford and Bingley HQ closed its doors in 2009, when the building society, bought out by Spanish firm Santander, moved its employees to newer premises in Crossflatts. Since then it has remained empty. Sainsbury’s bought the building in 2010, intending to redevelop it as a supermarket, but after encountering various problems the company instead decided to build a smaller convenience store across the road and demolish the building before selling the site on. After five years of setbacks and delays, that demolition is finally nearing completion.
As for the future of the site, once valued at £6 million, Sainsbury’s have stated that they are considering two offers: one residential, one joint retail and residential. The local rumour mill has suggested the former could be retirement home developer McCarthy and Stone, while the retail scheme could be Netto – potentially adding yet another supermarket to a town that will soon boast a Co-op, a Sainsbury’s Local and an Aldi. Sainsbury’s themselves are staying tight-lipped, however, so once again residents are being left to wait and see.
So will I be sorry to see the old Bradford and Bingley building go? Well, no: I come to bury, not to mourn. There’s no denying that as a piece of architecture it represented everything grey, dismal and ugly in 1970s design. Abandoned, derelict, decaying, it was a relic of the town’s past that needed to go and make way for what we hope will be a vibrant and thriving future. But it’s hard not to feel a little bereft at the loss of something that had come to symbolise not only the recession-struck building society but the town itself, something which had been a fixture on my horizon from childhood. To put it another way: looking out over Bingley now, there’s a rather overwhelming feeling – too much sky…