Mr Azim Walters is a defence lawyer with a handsome office at 58 London Road, but, as you may be aware, his Georgian building, along with neighbouring properties at 52, 54 and 56, are now on borrowed time.
“We don’t want it demolished, for historic reasons,” he says.
Set a little way off the busy city centre street, the elegant brick and stone-fronted business was once office and home to city father Arthur Wakerley – social reformer, architect and Leicester’s youngest mayor – and it doesn’t end there. The building was also one of the first magistrate courts in Leicester.
“Come on, I’ll show you,” says Mr Walters, enthusiastically leading the way through a busy office and down into a large dingy cellar into a room generously scattered with detritus.
“I was told by the historian, who looked around, these were the cells and those doors,” he says, pointing to the other side of the room, “that’s where they took them up the stairs. This is a historical building. People don’t realise the history of it.”
He has a point. As of last Wednesday, in a head-scratching case of architectural evolution, eight planning councillors voted to replace these two and three-storey houses, dating from 1833, the oldest properties in London Road, with a modern six and seven-storey student development, packing in 142 student bedrooms.
The planning official’s report had said the current buildings offer a “neutral” contribution to the street – the massive new block, meanwhile, “will make a positive contribution”.
English Heritage, Leicester Civic Society and The Victorian Society are among those who passionately disagree.
“There does not appear,” said Eilis Scott, the English Heritage inspector, in a damning five-page report, “to be any clear and convincing justification for this demolition.
“We consider the replacement building is harmful to the significance of the conservation area, by virtue of inappropriate scale, massing, height and design.”
Standing on the pavement on London Road, it’s when you look at what city planners have done to two properties next door to Wakerley’s old place, your face drops. A Greggs, with a large artless window, rubs shoulders with nondescript Westmanor Property Services.
Nos 54 to 56, on a cosmetic level, are not lookers. Compare their condition, if you like, to an iced bun that’s been dropped on the floor. The rest of the bun is sound, with a little dusting down it will be okay.
So what do you do? Do you make the best of it or do you stick the whole lot in the bin?
The city council planning committee says the bin.
And this is where, for some people, the alarm bells start ringing.
“A lot of that part of London Road is Art Deco, and some is Victorian, all around the railway station,” says Dr Helen Boynton, the historian behind 2001’s The Changing Face of London Road.
“If one historic building goes, the whole of London Road will go, if you know what I mean.
“Leicester’s changing so quickly you can hardly keep the mat under your feet.”
Grant Butterworth is head of planning at Leicester City Council.
“Positive investment in new developments is essential for the economic strength of the city,” he says, “but decisions which affect our heritage need to be considered very carefully.
“In this case, these buildings are not included in either national or local lists of historic buildings.”
But what of the argument that Leicester needs more student housing?
At present, a 601-bedroom student tower block is going up in Bath Lane, 387 student flats are going up opposite The Magazine and there are plans for 115 student flats in Stamford Street.
In the past five years we’ve made room for 5,000 new-build student bedspaces.
So does the proposed destruction of London Road’s oldest buildings indicate a greater malaise at work?
Let’s have a look at The Empire in Fosse Road, a Georgian spa and hotel. In 1830, when Isaac Harrison sank a shaft into the ground there, hoping for oil, he hit a pool of spring water. That spring gives the area – New Found Pool – it’s name.
Mr Harrison, a canny fellow, built a spa resort. His house, in 1888, was converted to a pub and hotel.
The hotel, still in pretty good condition, was reduced to dust earlier this year. In its place an identikit Lidl supermarket, in depressing Lego grey. Then there was the pretty Victorian St Luke’s Chapel at Leicester Royal Infirmary. Demolished.
Another one, to quote an old Queen song, bites the dust.
In the end, at last week’s planning meeting, only councillors Malcolm Unsworth and Dr Lynn Moore objected – and strongly – over the proposed loss of 52 to 58 London Road.
Bill Shelton, the planning chairman, did not. He encouraged the rest of the committee to follow his example.
“Nothing’s ever an easy decision,” Coun Shelton explained to the Mercury.
“We get a recommendation by officers – I looked at the application, listened to officers, and as I said during the debate, during my summing up, I do cherish the history of Leicester, especially the architecture of Leicester.
“Looking at the buildings and knowing the site on London Road, the state of the buildings in question have been compromised by the fact the shops were in front of them.
“If the buildings were still open and right to the front of the street scene and in good condition my decision might have been different.”
Is the new plan an improvement? Coun Shelton pauses. “Let’s put it this way,” he says, “I thought it complemented Lillie House.”
Lillie House, the old tax office, is now a neighbouring student block, also owned by Abode, the same developer who wants to level 52 to 58.
But what does Coun Shelton think of the state of student housing in the city?
“This is a debate that’s been going on for years – the problem is Leicester has got two universities and Loughborough 10 miles down the road,” he says.
“Leicester is on the map, nationally and internationally – where do you put those students? What we need is more homes and family accommodation and a lot of those students who attend uni, a lot are in terraced houses, especially around the De Montfort area.
“It’s not,” he insists, “just a question of new student buildings.”
Does he think we need more student housing? The question is asked more than once before it is answered.
“I can’t be seen to be saying we don’t need more student accommodation,” he says. “That puts me in a situation when other applications come in to the city council.”
In the case of 52 to 58 London Road, “the applicant,” according to the planning officer’s report, “has demonstrated there is a need for student housing in this area of the city.”
Mr Butterworth underlines the council can do as it wants with its own building stock – but not with private stock.
“We are very passionate about heritage – where the buildings justify it,” he says.
“We have served notices preventing immediate demolition – eg at Oxford Street, former railway buildings in Upperton Road, Abbey Mills on Abbey Park and the former ‘slum house’ at Belgrave Gate.
“We also make every effort to look after and cherish the many and varied heritage assets we own and occupy – such as the Town Hall, City Hall, Richard III centre, as well as seeking to work in partnership to safeguard the future of others through more active use, such as Leicester Castle with DMU.”
But they can’t “justify” protecting or enhancing the oldest buildings in London Road, the main thoroughfare in the South Highfields Conservation Area.
English Heritage’s Eilis Scott is concerned.
“We consider the existing buildings, in particular no 58, contribute positively to the significance of the conservation area, and as such, their demolition is harmful to this significance,” she says. Ms Scott believes the buildings can be retained and reused with “sensitive alterations.”
Sensitive – a word often used when a new build is squeezed into a conservation area. As you can see above, the Leeds’ Acanthus WSM architect’s plan is not seven storeys of sensitivity.
“Progress,” says Mr Walters at number 58, “is a word of the future, not the past.
“It will look horrible (the student flats),” he continues, “but it will not stop any application, not by Asda, Tesco, Lidl, M&S, Waitrose, wherever they go, they are given what they want.”
Stuart Bailey is the chairman of Leicester Civic Society and he was watching the planning meeting closely. “We could see the developers behind me getting a bit worried because there were two city councillors speaking passionately for keeping the houses.” Alas, he says, it was not to be.
“In the public realm, the city mayor is very strong on heritage matters. When it comes to planning, he can’t legally interfere, he can’t do anything. So we think he should take a greater role in planning policy.
“The conservation area appraisal for South Highfields is very strong and it’s adopted by the council. The snag is when it comes to presenting applications to councillors.
“Most councillors haven’t seen or heard of a conservation area appraisal, so they will listen to the planning officer.”
“Creeping destruction,” that’s what Stuart is concerned about now.
A couple of years ago, he says, planners approved two floors added to Lillie House, by the same developer.
“The new student build is another half a floor higher again.”
As for those shop fronts we see today in front of Greggs – the ugly frontage which lowers the architectural and historical value of the Georgian properties – the situation which helped the planning committee sanction their extinction… “It was the planning committee who voted four years ago to tear out the original 1930s shop fronts for Greggs,” says Stuart. “They did the damage.
“It’s creeping loss of quality all the while which helps diminish the historical asset.”
And that, as they say, is that.
Abode’s planning agent Andy Ward says 54 to 58 will be demolished soon so the flats will be ready for the next academic year.
There is a lighter note to all this, of course. The developer has suggested once those old Georgian buildings have been destroyed, they will erect a little blue plaque on the spot, saying what used to be there.
It’s not going to cut it for a significant number of people.