London Road Fire Station, PR dream or nightmare?
Yesterday, Manchester City Council granted planning permission to Britannia Hotels to convert the Grade II-listed former fire station on London Road into a 227 bedroom hotel. You can read the full council report here: http://tinyurl.com/2vehqlv
At first glance the London Road Fire Station is an absolute PR gem. It’s a major part of Manchester’s history, rich in architectural features. It used to be home to a community of fire fighters and their families. It’s a key site for the wider regeneration of the Piccadilly area of the city; it’s stunningly beautiful; it’ll have fans all over the world and it’s going to be brought back to life as a large hotel, which will create lots of new jobs as well as stopping the building from falling down. For me this is a PR dream.
But when you look a bit closer, this dream is fettered by some pretty dark clouds. The building has stood empty since 1985. It has been owned by Britannia Hotels since 1986. It was placed on the English Heritage Buildings at Risk Register in 1999.
Earlier this year, Manchester City Council announced its intention to apply for a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for the site. Britannia has appealed the order, but I understand the council is still keen to take the building on.
This move has led to open animosity between Britannia Hotels and the council. And you can see both sides of the argument. Britannia is a private business and is entitled to do whatever it wants with its property, but the council also has a duty to make sure buildings like this aren’t lost. But, as demonstrated in a very rare interview Britannia boss Alex Langsam did recently with Manchester Confidential, it seems the owner of the building doesn’t acknowledge the building’s beauty, significance or the role it could play by being a shining welcome to city, as it sits on the doorstep of Piccadilly Station. This rings alarm bells in my PR brain.
Then there’s the less than glowing reviews received by other hotels in the Britannia group (just search them on Trip Advisor to see what I mean). My own experience of staying at a Britannia Hotel wasn’t a pleasant one.
I need to believe whole-heartedly in any project I take on. How would I be able to convince journalists of the merits of the development if I am not 100% behind it? Even worse, I wouldn’t do a very good job for the client.
I’ll be keeping a close eye on developments at London Road, as I have a feeling this is only the start of the story. And if I could wave a magic wand and own the building myself, I would be off to see the big W Hotel at Starwood, which was supposed to be opening a bit further down the road at West’s Origin development near Canal Street. I’d pop some affordable commercial space /studio space in there, and have a space for arts based events and exhibitions.
I hope Britannia does deliver on the scheme and that this architectural masterpiece is restored and refined, but I won’t be offering Britannia my help (not that they would want it). What should be a dream PR job for someone like me would be a nightmare. This is a question people in PR should consider in a wider context too, could you work for someone or something you don’t believe in? I know I couldn’t.