Watchdog queries council inaction on Runnymede demolition

A heritage watchdog in Penang yesterday asked Penang Island City Council (MBPP) why it did not try to prevent several old structures on the Runnymede (pictured) property from being demolished by a developer.

George Town Heritage Action founder Mark Lay said the council could have tried to negotiate with the developer to save the buildings on Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah.

Seven of eight buildings on the site were reportedly demolished – including the former home of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore – on the second day of Chinese New Year two weeks ago. Only the three-storey Runnymede Hotel building remains.

The demolition caused public outcry.

“Even though the developer had legal permission to demolish, why didn’t MBPP sit down to discuss a compromise?” he told reporters in a press conference earlier today outside the property.

The state government had previously said it could not stop the demolition.

Local government exco Chow Kon Yeow reportedly said the administration had no option but to allow the buildings to be knocked down because the then Penang Island Municipal Council (MPPP) had already granted the developer planning permission in 1999.

He said the planning permission issued to developer Messrs Warisan Pinang Sdn Bhd was for building an office block, commercial complex and hotel only, while Hotel Runnymede would be retained and refurbished.

MBPP secretary And Aing Thye said a notice had been sent to the developer seeking explanation into why the demolition was carried out on a public holiday. He said, according to the planning permission, that type of work was prohibited on weekends and public holidays.

Lay also asked how it was possible that the council did not have records of one of the demolish bungalows being the former house of Raffles when he was posted to Penang.

“MBPP claimed it exhaustively researched Runnymede but (found) no record. Yet, GTHA uncovered 1988 and 1993 heritage building inventories by the council that clearly state the Runnymede-Raffles link.

“The fourth result of a Google search mentions the Raffles connection. So how could the council not know about it?

“(It is) incredible that Raffles’s house was torn down when the Raffles Hotel is famous around the world,” he said.

Lay urged the council to publicise its heritage building inventory and ensure developers with heritage properties to complete independent heritage management plans.

He also called on the authorities to implement the Penang Heritage Enactment 2011 and use Section 18 of the Town and Country Planning Act on planning control, which touches on land and building use.

According to historians, Runnymede was home to Raffles when he was assistant secretary to the Penang governor in the early 19th century. When he was moved to Malacca in 1811, Runnymede was advertised in The Prince of Wales Gazette for sale.

Runnymede survived as a house on Northam Road (now Jalan Sultan Ahmad Shah) until September 1901 when it was burned to the ground after the roof caught fire.

Some of the surrounding buildings were renovated and Runnymede was converted into a hotel to compete with The E & 0 Hotel down the road, until in 1940 when the British Royal Navy took over the property to house Europeans during the war.

The British military occupied the buildings and in 1951, bought the whole property for $1.5 million from the Choong Kye Hock Estate for continued military occupation.

The British sold Runnymede to the government for a token sum of $1 in late 1971. The buildings were then used as government rest and recreation centre called Wisma Persekutuan until the Malaysian army’s 2nd Division occupied the land in 1986.

Runnymede then became involved in Putrajaya’s privatisation move, which saw Warisan Pinang given the right to develop the property in exchange for building a new headquarters for the 2nd Division in Bukit Gedung, in the southern part of the island, in the 1990s.

When the army moved in 2005 the property fell vacant and was abandoned for about a decade.

In 2014, the city council ordered the property owner to restore the building. It was reported that the Ministry of Defence had only transferred the land ownership to Runnymede Hotels Sdn Bhd in February the same year. -- The Malaysian Insider

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