MORE than a dozen Victorian town houses formerly used as council offices in the heart of Carlisle have been sold to the developer who transformed the acclaimed Halston Hotel.

Simon Harrison and his business partner Robin Graham have bought a swathe of buildings in Portland Square.

Over three years, their firm Burge Halston will plough millions into converting the houses into upmarket apartments - part of a wider vision that reinvents the city centre as a place to live, work, and play in what is increasingly now recognised as the Borderlands regional capital.

They aim to create elegant city centre homes which will match the Halston Hotel, on nearby Warwick Road, in their quality. “Edinburgh-esque” is how the men describe their vision for the 13 properties, which overlook the Carlisle City Council-owned Portland Square gardens.

Occupying more than an acre of land, the Grade II-listed town houses extend across Portland Square, Brunswick Street, and Alfred Street North.

Built mid and late 19th century as private residences, all have period features, including ornate ceilings, sweeping staircases, and intricately carved banisters.

Planning permission already exists to convert them into 22 residential units.

“We want to put the same sort of emphasis and twist on this project as we have at the Halston,” said Mr Harrison. “We need to make more of what we have in Carlisle.

“These properties are unique - wonderfully preserved Victorian town houses that look out over a green space. They’re all in good condition and if they were anywhere else they’d have been developed a long time ago.

“We will use the existing planning permission as our basis but we will do our own analysis and in due course put in a fresh planning application.

“It’s not going to be quick because we want to take our time and get it right. We went up to Edinburgh to look at similar properties and that’s the quality and feel we’re aiming for.

“We’ll obviously work within listed buildings constraints.

“We intend to make this development sympathetic to the character of the buildings, and we’ll work with Carlisle City Council and its heritage officer.

“But we’re starting with a blank canvas.

“We feel there’s a growing market for people who want to live in the city, and there is a spectrum of people who want this type of Edinburgh-esque apartment living, right from young professionals to people in the 50 plus age range.

“Carlisle is growing its identity outside the Lakes.”

The apartments will include a range of one to three bedroom homes. The conversion will be carried out over 36 months and provide at least 25 construction jobs. A project manager has already been appointed.

Mr Harrison added: “Robin and I were thrilled when we found out that we had won the tender to buy this beautiful and incredible collection of buildings in the heart of Carlisle.

“We really want to build on what we have achieved at the Halston and all along Warwick road.

“Where else in the country could you find two entire streets of beautiful buildings set around a green park - the square is like those you’d find in Edinburgh or London?

“We are under no illusions that it’s a huge task ahead, but we will work with the City and the County Council along with other stakeholders to deliver what we are determined will be a landmark development.”

Robin added: “City centres are having to change fundamentally.

“This will be the first city centre living development in Carlisle that we’ll have seen on this scale. We intend to do a good job because we wouldn’t put our names to something that we could not be proud of.”

Cumbria County Council Leader Stewart Young said: “I was pleased to hear that Simon and Robin bid for the properties and are now the successful new owners, especially having seen the positive impact the Halston complex has had on regenerating Warwick Road.

“We wanted to make sure that we secured the right developer for this significant heritage asset and as such the council carried out substantial market engagement with the private sector which helped inform the approach taken with regard to the sale.

“I’ve no doubt that the Halston team will transform the Square into something the whole city can be proud of.

“Carlisle is shifting up a gear; it’s getting more of a big city feel. This is the type of development you’d get in Manchester or Newcastle.”

The properties were formerly offices for a variety of council departments, including adult social care, children’s services, and youth offending.

The staff who worked there have all moved to the County Council’s new Cumbria House HQ in Botchergate as part of a plan to cut the authority’s number of offices from 22 down to just two, generating a £1m a year saving.