The drying shed


Ann Redshaw looks at new and long-standing planning issues…

From Sawston Scene, June–July 2013

[…] Another building in the village which has caused comment and discussion over decades is the leather drying shed at Hutchings & Harding. While unsightly, it is a reminder of the bygone industrial history of the village. Sawstonians have been both dismayed and perplexed by its disintegration over the decades. Why not either make it useable or pull it down?

John Ettling, the managing director of Hutchings & Harding, was very willing to recount his thirty-year struggle to get matters resolved. By the time his father bought the site in 1976 in order to re-house his own expanding leather business in Portobello Lane, drying sheds of this construction were no longer used by the industry. The building was already very dilapidated and in a dangerous condition; it swayed in the wind. Moreover, its construction, even rebuilt from scratch, would not meet modern health and safety standards: it is a fire hazard; it has no foundations and no windows; and the original joints holding the cheap softwood construction together have always required additional metal props on the outside.

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The shed was Grade 2 listed in 1986 because it was over a hundred years old. Mr Ettling appealed this as it was collapsing and had no modern purpose – the ceilings are only five feet eight inches high. The appeal was turned down and English Heritage has always insisted that it should be rebuilt to its original condition. At considerable cost Mr Ettling twice got architects to draw up reconstruction plans to render the building safe and usable by, for example, putting in metal supports internally or keeping the facade and constructing a usable building inside it. Both plans were turned down because they compromised the original structure; separate access to the site from the Tannery Road side was refused and as the other side is an industrial site it is completely inaccessible to the general public.

In 1990 Mr Ettling offered English Heritage the opportunity to either take the shed down to reconstruct elsewhere or to take it on themselves. They declined. In 2003–4 the Industrial Buildings Preservation Trust showed an interest but declined to buy the shed for £1 because it is not in their remit to take on non-viable buildings. Grants have been unavailable to the tannery as a commercial enterprise, the site even being elevated to Grade 2* in the expectation of a grant being awarded. Mr Ettling has had two structural surveys carried out on the shed (another expensive exercise) and both reports recommended demolition – the then Department of Employment stating it would be unsafe under the factory act because of its construction. The parish council agreed to the latest of these recommendations for demolition but was overruled by the county council and English Heritage because it has not been up for sale for long enough. Anyone game? The listing regulations mean that the whole site is now Grade 2 listed and many of the other buildings are in a similar perilous state, having been built as cheaply as possible at the time. They have either no foundations or just wooden beams placed directly on the soil, once a common practice; some are tilting. What will become of it?

The irony is that when Mr Ettling sold the Portobello Lane site, he applied for permission to make the site residential but this was turned down in favour of keeping a new tanning industry in the centre of the village; now the district council is considering the use of green belt for housing!