A tale of two buildings - Magistrates’ Court and Canon O’Donnell Centre

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There are two historic buildings in Lewes that have both been in the planning limelight in recent times, with equally uncertain outcomes, and which bear scrutiny for different reasons.

They are respectively the Magistrates’ Courts in Eastgate, and the former Canon O’Donnell Centre in Western Road.

Both are vacant and both have been the subject of unsuccessful redevelopment schemes.

In both cases there have been strong pressures for conservation and retention, though neither building is statutorily listed as of special architectural character or significance.

Yet the two buildings and their cases for retention are entirely different from each other. In the case of the Magistrates’ Courts the building is in excellent condition and is clearly of civic architectural character, complementary to Fitzroy House adjoining, to the Lewes Conservation Area, and to the town centre in general.

Two successive architectural schemes for redevelopment have been overwhelmingly rejected, the latter against officers’ recommendation for approval by the South Downs Authority’s planning committee.

It has yet to be shown indisputably that the building is unworthy or incapable of retention. In the case of the old Canon O’Donnell Centre, at the far end of the town, the building has clearly reached the end of its useful life, appearing as little more than a rotting carcass, a derelict from past times. It does nothing to complement its prominent situation at a focal point in Western Road, and probably devalues the adjacent properties in the street, if not the Lewes Conservation Area itself. No suitable replacement scheme has yet come forward however, which is probably the only valid reason for retaining it, and there can only be a marginal case for its preservation in historic terms. Yet equally vociferous support has been expressed for it to remain, as for the entirely different case of the former Magistrates’ Courts, with the South Downs Authority leaning heavily toward its conservation, regardless of other factors.

Am I missing something, or is it not the case that a marked inconsistency of view is at work here, ultimately on the part of the Planning Authority, but also via indiscriminate views by sectors of the public as to the merits of building conservation in the two different cases?

Michael Parfect

Lewes