A petition to launch a public inquiry into Cardiff Council’s handling of the Coal Exchange was considered at the Welsh Assembly this morning.
The petition, which has been signed by more than 3,000 people, also calls on the council to preserve the iconic building from “substantial demolition.”
The historic Coal Exchange is at the centre of plans by the council and owners Macob Exchange Ltd to adapt the building for business and residential use.
The 128-year-old building was deemed structurally unsafe in 2013 and substantial parts of its interior are to be demolished in the new plans.
But Jon Avent, the director of Cardiff’s Mann Williams Consulting Civil and Structural Engineers, says there is little evidence to support council claims the building is unsafe, and has called for a public inquiry into the council’s handling of the building.
His petition to save the building has gained more than 3,000 signatures at the time of writing and is being supported by Cardiff Civic Society.
He said: “This is a Grade II listed building and one of the finest in Wales. It is full of history and significance, and just looking at maximising financial gain for the developer is not looking at the wider issues.”
The Assembly’s Petitions Committee, chaired by Liberal Democrat AM William Powell, agreed to write to the leader and chief executive of Cardiff Council, as well as John Griffiths, minister for culture and sport at the Welsh Assembly.
The committee also agreed to consult Cadw, the Welsh Government’s historic environment service. It is not clear whether a public inquiry will be launched at this stage.
In May 2013 the Coal Exchange was closed indefinitely due to safety concerns, with Cardiff Council stepping in to oversee crucial repair work.
Owners Macob Exchange Ltd were unable to raise the necessary funds to address safety concerns due to the collapse in the residential property market.
The council has since spent around £900,000 protecting the Coal Exchange, but hopes these costs will be recovered under section 78 of the Building Act if plans to turn the Coal Exchange into a business hub and residential area go ahead.
Section 78 states a local authority may recover expenses incurred from the upkeep of unsafe buildings from the owner.
But Mr Avent has questioned whether section 78 will cover the council’s costs, claiming there is no evidence the council has carried out work to protect the building.
In a public document submitted to the Assembly with his petition, Mr Avent says the council has failed to carry out basic maintenance such as removing intrusive vegetation and patching holes in the roof.
Instead, Mr Avent says “six-figure sums have been spent on consultants progressing a demolition scheme.”
He said: “In terms of recovering money under section 78 I think it would be highly unlikely they could recover all the money spent.”
But a spokesman for Cardiff Council today defended the council’s handling of the Coal Exchange.
He said: “We are trying to work with Macob to ensure that [recovering costs through section 78] is viable, but that is what it seems is being opposed.
“People say we have not invested money but it is obvious we have because £900,000 has been spent to keep the building safe.
“We did not choose to use the section 78 – it was not chosen by us but recommended by several external organisations.”
The Coal Exchange was closed in 1958 after the decline of the coal industry in Cardiff.
Once earmarked as a future home for the Welsh Assembly, the plan fell through after devolution was rejected in 1979.
The iconic building was subsequently refurbished and turned into a popular music venue in 2001. In May 2013 it was closed due to safety concerns.
Macob, the parent company of Macob Exchange Ltd, went into administration last week, but the administrators confirmed the Coal Exchange was not affected.