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Coal Exchange on list of most important buildings in danger

29 May 2024 6 minute read
Coal Exchange. Image by Martin Shipton

Martin Shipton

Cardiff’s iconic Coal Exchange has been put on the Victorian Society’s list of the Top Ten Buildings in Danger in England and Wales for the second time.

The building has gone through a torrid few years, with part of it collapsing through neglect and allegations of serious financial irregularities involving two companies that were involved in running the hotel it became after ceasing to be a music venue.

A French Renaissance influenced building, it was designed by Seward & Thomas and built in 1884-86. It remains one of the most important 19th century buildings in Wales.

‘Foolish plans’

Actor and comedian Griff Rhys Jones, President of the Victorian Society, said: ‘I can’t believe this. The Coal Exchange is Cardiff. It symbolises the power that built this city and the story of the Coal King. Not only that. He is loved. As a very successful building and hotel.

“Foolish plans to modernise it have damaged it structurally but it is not irreparable and the Victorian Society insists that a proper plan to care for what is one of the most important buildings of the nineteenth century in Wales is provided.

“It was here that world coal prices were decided, and the first £1m cheque was signed in 1904. Obscured in the 1970s by an underground car park, parts of the building have been left to decay. It was recently used as a venue for musical gigs and offices until 2013 when security concerns forced its closure. After a long period of renovation, some of the most significant rooms were included in a plan that transformed part of the building into a hotel.

Coal Exchange. Image by Martin Shipton

“The part of the building which is a hotel, one of the most popular in Cardiff, has a high rating on TripAdvisor, but has been hit by maintenance problems and safety issues. In February 2023 a water pipe burst forcing the hotel to close.

“The water was accumulating so intensively that Cardiff council ordered that part of the building must be demolished due to concerns that it was not structurally sound, and a road was closed due to the risk of falling masonry.

“Aerial photos in the Welsh media have shown damage to the structure, with entire floors missing from roof to floor, with one side of the building now missing. Media reports have said that the section being demolished will be rebuilt, but it is not clear if this will happen.

“Cardiff Coal Exchange has been affected because its owners, a Liverpool company, Signature Group, went into administration creating headlines in local, Welsh and English national newspapers. For seven years, the company had acquired historic buildings across UK cities to redevelop them into hotels, offices and flats.

“The Coal Exchange was just one of these buildings. In April 2020 one of Signature Group’s largest subsidiaries, Signature Living Hotel Ltd, went into administration with debts of £113m. The hotel remained in business and in March this year it reopened in time for the Six Nations championship.”

“The Victorian Society and city conservation officers are concerned that this listed building is still not being properly serviced by the site’s current occupiers. The collapsed part needs to be rebuilt. After the recent closure and re-opening of the hotel under new ownership in Spring this year, there is growing concern about the future of a building that played a central role in Welsh history.

!A long-term sustainable plan needs to be found to reverse the deterioration of the building and ensure the preservation of this important piece of Welsh history.”

Coal Exchange. Image by Martin Shipton

James Hughes, Director of the Victorian Society, said: “It has been a turbulent decade for Cardiff’s spectacular Coal Exchange since it last appeared on the Society’s Top Ten list.

“Although plans to demolish the facade on a large scale thankfully did not materialise, and although parts of the building have been turned into a hotel, the future of the building remains very doubtful. Not only do large parts of the building remain empty, but the recent catastrophic water leaks have forced extremely challenging work, meaning the loss of significant parts of the historic structure.

“Enough is enough. It is now time for a considerate and comprehensive plan for the restoration and reuse of the Coal Exchange, and we call on all stakeholders to come together to tackle what is undoubtedly an important matter of national importance.”

Statutory role

The Victorian Society has a statutory role in the planning process. Its specialist caseworkers are consulted on all applications where there is an element of demolition of Victorian and Edwardian listed buildings.

Its conservation advisers help local planning authorities and churches to avoid unnecessary damage to Victorian or Edwardian buildings. Reusing our wonderful historic buildings, rather than tearing them down and rebuilding from scratch, is, the Society argues, the key to a sustainable future. The Society’s input has saved notable buildings ranging from St Pancras in London to Albert Dock in Liverpool.

Eden Grove Developments, a company founded by Cardiff businessman Ashley Govier, a former Labour councillor in the city, now owns the freehold of the building, although the majority of the hotel rooms are owned by individual investors.

Coal Exchange. Image by Martin Shipton

Mr Govier said: “I agree that the building is in a perilous state. Together with our technical advisers, we are in the process of drawing up plans aimed at giving the Coal Exchange a secure future. That will entail building accommodation for sale in the part of the building that has been damaged. It wouldn’t be viable to extend the hotel – there are already 100 rooms.

“We shall be in pre-planning discussions with the council, exploring the idea that in order to save the building some planning requirements that would normally be in place could be relaxed.”

Mr Govier said it was not envisaged that any public money would be involved in delivering the renovation plans: “What money they have is needed for other things,” he said.

Since the company that was running the hotel went bust in late 2023, it has reverted to Mr Govier’s firm. By reopening the hotel, around 55 jobs have been saved, he said.

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John Ellis
John Ellis
5 days ago

Sad to see this building, once so pivotal to Cardiff’s development as our principal city, in such a state of structural deterioration in our day and age.

5 days ago

Shame it’s boxed in by narrow streets and ugly buildings in a rough part of Cardiff with little footfall which does the building a dis-service. Hard to see how it can thrive without regeneration and investment into the immediate surrounding area.

Jonathan Edwards
Jonathan Edwards
4 days ago
Reply to  Dave412

Yes, not easy at all. Parking, decay….My grandfather had a shipping office there. I lived across the street and ran a law office at the Exchange. When Mike Johson and family ran the music – great! I liked Lawrence Kenright, whose heart was in the right place, but I never thought his hotel was the answer, as events are proving. Sorry but this is political. Labour councillors have run Cardiff and the Exchange since the year dot, badly. Govier must sell for £1. Wales needs a bicameral parliament, not just the Senedd, to be like anywhere civilised. Put a new… Read more »

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