That is the topical question posed by a BBC Radio documentary program last week. If you’ve half an hour to spare, take the link and listen, especially if you work for Havant Borough Council and your brief includes Planning, Economic Development or Regeneration. The subject is not only relevant to the Council’s plans to ‘demolish and start again’ on the Meridian Centre and Bulbeck Road car park sites, but also to a rather more impressive Havant landmark building which also currently stands on ‘death row’, awaiting demolition.
Should it be reprieved and if so, how might it be repurposed?
To the author of this post, the answer to the first question is undoubtedly ‘yes’, and an intriguing option for the second could be ‘as a multi-function space to celebrate Havant’s manufacturing and technology heritage’. Thoughtfully refurbished with the inclusion of a purpose built auditorium, this award-winning building could once again provide Havant Borough with a significant asset, not just for education and training in the community, but also as a potential industrial tourism attraction.
Now before you start laughing, consider this. The historic tanning and parchment-making businesses in Havant, beneficiaries of the pure water from the Brockhampton Springs, date back at least to the eighteenth century. Havant was well known for its glove making in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and in the heady days of the ‘we’re backing Britain‘ campaign, spearheaded by Colt International and Kenwood, Havant became the centre of attention in the national media, cementing New Lane’s reputation as a technology-based centre for manufacturing industry with a dedicated local workforce.
At the same time, yachtsmen around the world were familiar with Lewmar winches and fittings on Halmatic and Westerly yachts, all originally manufactured in Havant Borough factories. In the consumer electronics field, Goodman’s Industries diversified from building public address systems in Wembley to open their HiFi loudspeaker factory here in New Lane, another local employer driving British exports.
Havant’s Spring Arts and Heritage Centre has recently hosted temporary exhibitions on both Kenwood and Minimodels, better known throughout the world for Scalextric. A refurbished Building 7000 could house permanent displays and travelling exhibitions retelling the history of these well-known Havant manufacturers, including other significant global companies such as Tambrands and Dunham Bush.
During the two decades of IBM’s sole occupation of the Langstone site, the IBM brand was one of the most highly recognised and valued brands in the world, a fascinating high point in that global corporation’s history. That in itself is a history worth recording and learning from and where better to do that than Building 7000?
So just where is this building?
It is the unit now known as Building 7000 on the left of this photograph, taken around 1980 before the architectural landscaping was obliterated by the the car parking visible from this public footpath today. The long, low building on the right, now identified as Building 1000, was originally designed as the manufacturing plant at which Havant employees built the mainframe central processing units (CPUs) and the core memory essential to their processing.
When I first worked there in 1972, two-thirds of the now-demolished eastern end of Building 1000 was fitted out as two large computer rooms housing large water-cooled mainframe systems. The southern most room contained 370/System demo boxes, one of which invariably had the case off with a CE (Customer Engineer) ‘working’ on it to impress the visiting prospective customers, standing alongside the plant manager on the other side of the full hight glazed corridor glass. The second machine room was hidden from public view and contained the production systems which ran the local admin and manufacturing processes for the Havant site.
The items of peripheral equipment, including disc drives, tape units, card readers, card punches, printers and other esoteric bits of electro-mechanical kit, were each temporarily imported from other overseas IBM manufacturing plants, integrated with the host CPU in the Havant Plant building for the purpose of complete system integration and testing. Once assured, the complete systems were then repackaged and shipped across the globe to the customer’s location.
In Havant Plant’s heyday in the 1970’s, half a dozen of these complete mainframe systems could occupy the main building test space at any one time, often with case colours bespoke to the customer’s requirement and with the customer’s name prominently displayed on a sign hanging from the ceiling above. It was a genuinely impressive spectacle for visitors to the site.
The current outline planning application
At the time of writing, an outline planning application is with Havant Borough Council Planning Services for the demolition of the existing buildings and redevelopment of the site. The site plans – current and proposed – are shown below, taken from the Planning Heritage Statement. That document gives more detail about the attempts to seek historical listing for buildings on the site, which curiously seem to centre on the relatively uninteresting 1979 office building (‘6000’).
The more important structures historically are the four original ones, the Plant building (‘1000’), now largely demolished, the Materials Distribution Centre (‘5000’), the Information Services Limited building (‘7000’) and the adjoining link structure (‘4000’). The glass corridor linking ‘7000’ to the Plant entrance was a practical improvement submitted after the pictures at the beginning of this post were taken, and a nod to the local climate!
The current planning application, if approved, would see the site flattened and replaced by a set of visually uninspiring ‘cookie cutter’ sheds, each offering BREEAM standards of energy efficiency while adding little of interest to the landscape. As roundabouts are to Basingstoke, so sheds are now to Havant, or so it seems.
Should Building 7000 be preserved and repurposed?
There have been previous unsuccessful attempts to ‘list’ the original IBM site buildings for their historic importance, but while the Planning Heritage Statement provides a comprehensive summary of these, there is insufficient detail of ‘how’ the site buildings were used and what their importance was for the global business of the IBM Corporation. It presents a misleading view, for example, that the incremental extensions to the original Plant building – ‘1000’ – were developed piecemeal and lacking in vision.
On the contrary, the extensions to the building fitted perfectly within the context of the site space and were predicted and planned to synchronise with the constant evolution of the hardware and software technology, and with the commercial changes dictated by the mainframe computer market movement from a high value ‘lease/rental’ model to a lower priced ‘purchase’ model. The way in which the IBM Havant site reacted to the changing business and technology environment is a story well worth telling and one worth learning from, particularly given the trading and cost challenges that ‘UK PLC’ faces today.
The eastern end of Building 1000 has already been demolished, but for now, the landmark ‘Information Services Limited’ building is still standing. Building 7000 stands at the gateway to the Langstone Park site. It occupies a small-enough footprint to enable planners to accommodate it and the potential benefits of its retention as a heritage asset should be carefully assessed.
A little historical context
The building will be remembered by insiders as ‘The RESPOND building‘, an acronym for Retrieval, Entry, Storage & Processing of Online Network Data, the water-cooled mainframe computer systems running behind those originally windowless concrete walls once played a significant part in running the IBM Corporation’s World Trade business.
In 1970, the IBM world was divided into two business divisions. ‘US Domestic’ represented roughly half the business volume while ‘World Trade’ covered 150+ diverse countries across the rest of the world. The business and manufacturing support systems for ‘US domestic’ customers ran from within the USA, and the equivalent systems for the rest of IBM’s World Trade business all ran out of this very building in Havant.
If you thought the name RESPOND seemed a tad contrived, then it might help to understand that the staff working in that building half a century ago spoke in a language alien to most Havant folk, a tongue steeped in jargon and heavy with acronyms, many of which were simply the names of the systems running on those big coloured boxes. One example of these is outlined in the following extract from the tongue-in-cheek “IBM Jargon and General Computing Dictionary”.
The essential role played by the original IBM Havant site in the management and evolution of the IBM World Trade business between 1970 and 1985 warrants a documentary effort well beyond the scope of this Civic Society post. For now, however, the fact that the IBM Corporation once selected Havant as the location for this group of buildings should be celebrated as a significant milestone for Havant Borough.
By the end of the 1960s, Havant hosted a significant number of technology companies, many of which were already exporting to many of the international markets targeted by IBM. The role played by other locally-established manufacturing and technology companies and the reliability of Havant’s technically skilled manufacturing workforce were clearly factors in IBM’s decision to locate here.
Is there a ‘do nothing’ option?
Not really. The writer of this post feels some personal guilt for not having fought for the Colt International office block at the northern gateway to New Lane, a landmark brutalist structure which really should have been protected. In its place yet more sheds are proposed, following the same dull (but no doubt BREEAM compliant!) approach as those below, a dozen of which, mostly still empty, now occupy the space left when the New Lane Butterick factory was levelled a couple of years ago.
Now take a look back at the top of this post to remind yourself what good industrial architecture could and should deliver.
Once the local elections are behind them, Havant Borough Council are expected to finally admit that the still-anonymous occupant of the ‘mother of all sheds and a multi-storey van park‘ approved to be built on the recently demolished New Lane site of Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, will indeed be Amazon logistics.
Havant’s young unemployed will sadly find that the zero-hours driving jobs and the short-contract 24/7 warehouse shift vacancies will be a poor substitute for the opportunities that their parents and grandparents had in Havant’s manufacturing heyday.
Those memories are worth recording as lessons for the future. In the post-Brexit, post-Covid, post-Ukraine world, ‘UK PLC’ manufacturing careers could be the next big thing and Havant could, once more, lead the way.
Havant Civic Society would appreciate your views on this article, your stories from working in these local businesses and your opinion on whether or not Building 7000 should be preserved as a local heritage asset. If you can spare a few more minutes, please take this link and put your thoughts down in an email.